Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition for people of all ages but, like most medical complaints, seniors are at increased risk and can be more severely affected by its symptoms than the general public. Early diagnosis can save lives. So if you’re currently playing the role of family caregiver, knowing how to spot the signs of sepsis could be crucial for your senior loved one.
What is Sepsis?
Sepsis occurs when your body is fighting an infection. This initial infection could be anything: a skin infection, a UTI or an infection in an organ. Chemicals released by your body to fight the infection trigger reactions throughout your body. These reactions can damage tissue and organs, eventually causing organ failure and death. If sepsis progresses to septic shock, it can cause a drop in blood pressure, which can be life-threatening.
How Are Seniors Affected?
Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mayo Clinic warn that people over 65 years old are at increased risk of sepsis. There may be a few reasons for this: Seniors are more prone to infection, and infections in seniors are harder to diagnose. Seniors spend more time in hospitals and nursing care, and a hospital stay increases the risk of infection. Their immune systems are weaker and they have more chronic conditions, which can also be a contributing factor. For whichever reason, seniors make up 12 percent of the population yet account for 65 percent of sepsis cases.
And when sepsis strikes a senior, it can be even more devastating. Sepsis can cause a mental decline in a patient of any age, but it is three-times more likely in older people. This means that after having had sepsis, seniors are likely unable to go back to their previous living arrangements. The risk of death from sepsis is great; one-in-three people who contract sepsis globally die, and for seniors that risk increases.
What are the Symptoms of Sepsis?
Look for the following symptoms to know if your loved one should seek medical help immediately.
- Increased heart-rate (above 90 bpm)
- Temperature higher than 101 F (or lower than 96.8 F)
- Respiratory rate greater than 20 breaths per minute
The following symptoms could indicate severe sepsis:
- Significantly decreased urine output
- A change in mental status, including confusion
- Breathing problems
- Abnormal heartbeat
- Abdominal pain
Septic shock combines symptoms of severe sepsis with extremely low blood pressure.
Complications from sepsis worsen as the condition progresses, the mortality rate of septic shock is 50 percent. Non-fatal complications of sepsis include reduced blood flow to vital organs causing organ damage or tissue death (gangrene).
If a doctor suspects your loved one has sepsis, she will most likely order a barrage of tests very quickly. Blood tests will be taken to look for signs of infection and organ failure. Imaging tests, such as CT scans or MRIs, may also be needed to locate the site of the infection.
If your loved one has sepsis, hospitalization is likely. Doctors will quickly try to stabilize by giving antibiotics and maintaining blood flow to organs to increase blood pressure. A respirator may also be needed to help your loved one breathe, and large amounts of IV fluids are also likely to be necessary.
The doctor will then try to treat the source of the infection. This treatment will vary depending on the source: The treatment for a severe UTI differs from the treatment for pneumonia. Surgery may be required to remove pus or abscesses in some cases.
The recovery from sepsis is dependent on the source of the infection that caused it. Strong antibiotics will most likely be required to treat the infection. It may be that oral antibiotics are suitable, but it is possible that IV antibiotics may be needed for a period of months. If your loved one needs a prolonged period of IV treatment, a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line may be an alternative to an extended hospital stay. A PICC line is a semi-permanent catheter which allows IV fluids to be administered outside of a hospital setting, without the need for needle sticks. It can also be used to draw blood.
One major pitfall in recovery is the risk of reinfection. Once a person has had sepsis, the risk of future infections rises. A PICC line is also an infection risk, given that it provides external access directly into your bloodstream.
There are also a range of potential symptoms during recovery including:
- Weakness and fatigue
- Sleep difficulties
- Loss of self-esteem
- Flashbacks or bad memories
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Decreased cognitive function
Help for Your Loved One
If your loved one is recovering from sepsis at home, it is essential to know that there is support available if you need it. Your loved one may require in-home medical care, but professional home care may help him to cope in between medical visits.
To reduce the risk of reinfection cleanliness is essential. A professional caregiver could help your loved one with housework and ensure that the house is clean. This person can also help with personal hygiene, ensuring that any potential reinfection risk is as minimal as possible.
The medical routine involved in overcoming the infections that cause sepsis can be onerous. While professional caregivers won’t administer medications, they will help your loved one stay abreast of his or her routine, offering gentle reminders and reassurance. They can also be your eyes and ears if you can’t check in on Mom, and many have the experience and training to spot signs of sepsis, as they have cared for many people in your parent’s position.
If your loved one has permanent side effects of sepsis, such as reduced mobility or loss of cognitive function, a professional caregiver can help them to get around or help to keep their mind active.
Finally, home care can offer support to your loved one’s family caregivers. Studies have shown that the stress of having a loved one who is so ill can take a toll on their spouses and children, putting them at a three-to-four-times higher risk of depression. When your loved one is with a professional caregiver, the family can rest, recuperate and look after themselves for a time, safe in the knowledge that their loved one is in good hands.
Urinary tract infections are a significant cause of sepsis in seniors, so learn more about them in this article.