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Sepsis, sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to an injury or an infection. Most infections that lead to sepsis start in the lungs, urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, or on skin, and if treatment isn’t immediately sought, sepsis can quickly cause tissue damage, organ failure, and even death.

sepsis in the elderly

Who can be susceptible to sepsis?

Although it can affect people of any age and is particularly dangerous in very young children and in those who have a compromised immune system, or who live with a chronic illness, it is the over-65 age-group (especially older people with health issues) that is most susceptible.

In fact, older adults are 13 times more likely to be hospitalised with sepsis than those under 65, and up to 63% of adults over the age of 60 admitted to intensive care units, present with sepsis symptoms.

Is sepsis a medical emergency?

Yes, Much like a stroke or heart attack, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires urgent diagnosis and treatment and can result from an infection that is present anywhere in the body, from pneumonia and influenza to urinary tract infections, and even cuts and scrapes.

A third of sepsis patients worldwide will die, and those who survive can be left with life-changing conditions such as chronic pain and fatigue, failing organs, and PTSD.

Sepsis can also lead to cognitive impairment, causing up to 20,000 new cases a year among elderly people, as well as being one of the top causes of hospital readmissions – a staggering 40% of those over 65’s who have previously been hospitalised with sepsis will suffer a repeat episode within three months.

Why are older people more at risk of sepsis compared to their younger counterparts?

Simply put, it is down to the human body’s immune system. As we age it becomes harder to fight off infections, and every infection carries a risk of developing sepsis. Also, older people are more likely to develop an infection while living with a chronic illness such as diabetes, heart failure, or kidney disease.

However, even the most seemingly innocuous of infections can cause sepsis, from a bug bite to the flu, and in older people skin sores and tears caused by dry, fragile skin, or pressure sores from sitting in a chair or lying in bed. One of the most common sepsis triggers in the elderly is caused by respiratory infections such as pneumonia; and is something that became particularly worrying with the emergence of COVID-19, which presented a high risk of sepsis in older adults. 

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to spot the signs of infection in older people. For example, some of the first signs of an infection such as pneumonia or a UTI that the patient is confused or disoriented, so if an elderly loved one is behaving in a way that is ‘unusual’ for them, don’t just put it down to ‘old age’ – seek medical advice.

So, what are the symptoms of sepsis?

While confusion is a symptom that is more common in elderly people, the majority of sepsis symptoms are the same in adults of all ages and include:

  • A rapid heartbeat of over 90 beats per minute
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shaking
  • A fever or very low body temperature

Why Is Sepsis So Serious For Elderly People?

Sepsis is a serious and devastating illness for all age groups, but for older people, the consequences can be particularly serious. Aside from the fact that the risk of dying from sepsis or septic shock is much higher as you get older, survivors over the age of 65 are much more likely to suffer life-changing effects, such as a drop in their mental ability that could make it impossible for them to continue with their previous living arrangements, depression, and anxiety.

Preventing infection from occurring in the first place is the only way to prevent sepsis, and one of the most important ways to do this is to ensure that your elderly loved ones are up-to-date with their vaccinations for illnesses such as flu, COVID-19, and pneumonia. Other ways to reduce the risk of infections are to ensure thorough and frequent handwashing, properly caring for even the smallest cut or scrape, and ensuring that your loved one is eating a healthy diet, as not getting all the nutrients your body needs can make it harder for your immune system to fight infection.

Above all, if you’re caring for an older loved one, be sure to take any sign of infection seriously – don’t be tempted to see if it will just go away on its own, or be swayed by the fact that your family member ‘feels fine’. Infections can take hold and spread quickly, so don’t delay; seek medical attention immediately.

How Care in Kent can help

Do you need help with caring for your loved one? Our team is dedicated to providing high-quality home care that is tailored to the unique needs of each individual we serve, please get in touch today to find out how we can help you and your loved one.