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Your elderly loved one could be at risk of cellulitis

As a result of the natural aging process, seniors have an increased chance of developing skin infections, and one of the most common is cellulitis. This type of infection affects the deepest layers of skin, along with the layer of fat found just underneath, and it occurs when bacteria enter through a cut or another opening. Cellulitis is very painful and can cause swelling, redness, and a wide array of other symptoms. Fortunately, DispatchHealth provides in-home treatment for cellulitis and other non-life-threatening skin infections. Our mobile services allow your elderly loved one to receive the care they need in a comfortable and familiar setting, without having to spend time in a germ-ridden waiting room.

Cellulitis symptoms & when to seek treatment

Cellulitis typically causes a significant amount of pain, and the affected area of skin may be tender and warm to the touch. Also be sure to keep an eye out for:

  • Blisters
  • Blotchiness
  • Dimples
  • Redness
  • Spots
  • Swelling

Although cellulitis can occur anywhere in the body, it most often develops in the lower legs. Because cellulitis tends to expand over time, you’ll need to closely monitor your elderly loved one’s symptoms to determine if the infection is increasing in size. Cellulitis should always be treated promptly, but emergency treatment may be necessary if your loved one is experiencing a fever, chills, or swelling in the lymph nodes, since those symptoms can be a sign that the infection is spreading throughout the body.

What causes cellulitis in seniors?

In general, cellulitis occurs when bacteria (often Staphylococcus or Streptococcus) enter through breaks in the skin, such as:

  • Cuts
  • Puncture wounds
  • Abrasions
  • Insect bites
  • Burns
  • Ulcers
  • Dry and flaky patches
  • Surgery incisions

Skin naturally becomes drier and thinner with age, and thus more susceptible to breaks, so seniors have a higher chance of developing cellulitis and other skin infections. As people grow older, their sweat glands and oil glands become less and less active. This causes the skin’s moisture level to drop, which can make it feel dry, rough, and itchy. If moisture levels aren’t replenished, elderly individuals will often end up scratching themselves to relieve itchiness, and these scratches provide another means for bacteria to enter and cause an infection. Older adults are also more likely to develop shingles and bedsores, which each create a way for bacteria to enter the skin. In some cases, cellulitis can develop even without a break in the skin. This generally occurs when someone experiences chronic swelling, which is common among elderly individuals.

Another reason why seniors often develop cellulitis is because the immune system tends to naturally weaken over time, and a weakened immune system can leave someone more vulnerable to infection. Many conditions common in older adults, such as diabetes and cancer, can weaken the immune system even further, as can certain medications. Poor circulation — which can result from common conditions like congestive heart failure, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension — can also increase someone’s risk of infection, since decreased blood flow can slow the healing process.

How to prevent cellulitis in seniors

One of the best things you can do to prevent the development of cellulitis and other skin infections is to keep your elderly loved one’s skin moist and supple. When skin is healthy, it’s less likely to break, which makes it harder for bacteria to enter and cause an infection. To keep skin moist, your loved one should reduce their bathing frequency, and also limit the time they spend in the bath or shower. Because hot water and harsh soaps can dry out skin, your loved one should use lukewarm water and non-irritating cleansers. They should also use moisturizer, which is most effective when applied on skin that’s still damp from bathing. You may also want to invest in a humidifier for your loved one’s home, especially if they live in a dry climate.

In addition to keeping your aging loved one’s skin moist, you can lower the risk of a skin break occurring by keeping their fingernails and toenails trimmed. With shorter nails, they’ll be less likely to cut themselves even if they need to scratch an itch. You can also prevent skin irritations from developing by making sure that your loved one’s washcloths, towels, and clothing are soft to the touch. And, if your loved one enjoys gardening, you should encourage them to wear long sleeves, pants, closed shoes, and gloves while doing so to avoid getting nicked by twigs and other sharp objects.

Sometimes, even despite the best of efforts, skin breaks will still develop. It’s important to monitor your elderly loved one’s skin for wounds and signs of infection, especially if they have a condition like diabetes that makes it difficult for them to feel an injury. If you do find a skin break, you can lower the risk of infection by gently washing the wound with soap and water, applying an antibiotic cream or ointment, covering the wound with a bandage, and then repeating this process at least once a day until the wound is fully healed. And, if your loved one has experienced cellulitis in the past, you may want to ask their doctor about prescribing a preventive antibiotic to avoid recurrent infections.

If left untreated

It’s important to seek treatment for your aging loved one as soon as you notice signs of cellulitis or another skin infection. If cellulitis is caught in the early stages of infection, it can usually be successfully treated with antibiotics. Seniors often require intravenous antibiotics, as opposed to oral antibiotics, since it’s more difficult for them to digest and absorb medications taken by mouth. If cellulitis is left untreated, the infection can spread to your loved one’s bloodstream, lymph nodes, or deeper tissues and develop into a life-threatening condition that requires emergency care. Plus, recurrent cases of cellulitis can damage the lymphatic drainage system and cause permanent swelling in the affected area of the body.

If you’re concerned that your elderly loved one may have cellulitis or another skin infection, contact DispatchHealth by phone or through our website or mobile app to request care. Our team will arrive within just a few hours, and your loved one can continue relaxing at home while they wait.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on October 3rd, 2019

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