As the global population ages, geriatric infections have become an increasingly prevalent concern for healthcare providers. These infections range from mild to severe and significantly impact an older adult's quality of life, affecting their physical, emotional, and mental health. It's estimated that infectious diseases account for about one-third of all deaths for those aged 65 and over.
The decline of the immune system and underlying health issues and lifestyle factors make older adults more susceptible to infections, highlighting the need for a comprehensive and proactive approach to prevent and manage these conditions. This is where functional medicine comes in, offering a holistic and personalized approach to addressing geriatric infections and promoting overall health and wellness in older adults.
Most Common Geriatric Infections
There are several common geriatric infections that healthcare providers need to be aware of, including urinary tract infections (UTIs), pneumonia, influenza, Clostridium difficile (C. diff) infections, and skin infections.
UTIs are a common cause of morbidity and hospitalization in older adults and can be caused by bacteria that enter the bladder and cause inflammation.
Pneumonia is a serious lung infection with various causes, such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi, and can be life-threatening in older adults.
Influenza is a respiratory illness that's highly contagious and caused by the influenza virus. It can lead to severe complications, particularly in vulnerable populations such as the elderly.
C. diff infections are bacterial infections that affect the gut and can cause severe diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever.
Skin infections, such as cellulitis, are another common geriatric infection that can cause redness, swelling, and pain and can spread quickly in older adults with weakened immune systems.
Infection Symptoms in Geriatric Population
Geriatric infections can manifest in various ways, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Some of the most common symptoms of infections include:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle aches and pains
- Joint pain and swelling
As the most common geriatric infections include urinary tract infections (UTIs), pneumonia, influenza, Clostridium difficile (C. diff), and skin infections such as cellulitis, the main symptoms differ depending on the type of infection.
UTIs are characterized by frequent and painful urination, cloudy or foul-smelling urine, and lower abdominal pain.
Pneumonia presents with symptoms like coughing (with or without mucus production), difficulty breathing, and fever.
Influenza manifests with sudden fever, cough, body aches, and fatigue.
C. diff Symptoms
C. diff infections cause watery diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever.
Skin Infection Symptoms
Lastly, skin infections display redness, swelling, and tenderness in the affected area, along with a possible fever.
How Serious Are Infections In the Geriatric Population?
Infections can profoundly impact an older adult's quality of life, causing discomfort and pain and reducing their ability to perform daily activities. Especially if the infection is chronic, this may lead to significant financial strain due to increased medical expenses. Infections in older adults can also lead to long-term complications, such as pneumonia and sepsis. These conditions can seriously damage the body's organs, leading to permanent disabilities and reducing an older adult's overall well-being.
Possible Causes of Infections in Older Adults
Various factors can cause infections in older adults. For example, poor nutrition is common in older adults, specifically deficiencies in macronutrients like protein and micronutrients like vitamins B6, B12, folic acid, iron, and zinc. Since these nutrients are required for a healthy immune system, deficiencies can contribute to a weakened immune system.
Natural aging leads to a decline in the immune system, making older adults more susceptible to infections. However, individuals with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, or a generally lowered immune system may be at an increased risk of severe infections.
Reduced mobility and independence, exposure to infections through contact with others, and certain medications, such as immunosuppressants, can further weaken the immune system and are common causes of infections among the elderly.
Functional Medicine Labs to Test for Root Cause of Infection
Conventional labs alongside specialty labs can help practitioners individualize treatment options based on results. Below are some of the most common labs ran for reoccurring geriatric infections.
Complete Blood Count (CBC) with Differential and Platelets
The Complete Blood Count (CBC) with Differential and Platelets test is a blood test that measures several components of the blood, including platelets, RBCs (red blood cells), and WBCs (white blood cells), along with five different white blood cell types. This test can help determine if an infection is present in the body and provide insight into the severity of the infection. The differential count is particularly useful for detecting infections because it reveals any imbalances in the types of WBCs, which can help healthcare providers identify the cause of an infection. For example, an elevated neutrophil count often suggests a bacterial infection, while a high lymphocyte count may indicate a viral infection.
C-Reactive Protein (CRP)
C-Reactive Protein (CRP) is a protein the liver produces in response to inflammation. This test measures the levels of CRP in the blood and can help indicate the presence and severity of an infection.
Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR)
The Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) test measures the speed at which red blood cells settle at the bottom of a test tube. This test can help determine if there is inflammation in the body and provide insight into the severity of the infection. An elevated ESR can indicate an active infection.
A urinalysis is a test that involves analyzing a sample of urine to assess various aspects of health, including the presence of infection. Urinalysis can help detect urinary tract infections.
Comprehensive Stool Testing
GI-MAP by Diagnostic Solutions is a test that uses a stool sample to analyze the gut microbiome and detect the presence of pathogens and other harmful microorganisms. This test can help identify the root cause of infections and provide a comprehensive understanding of gut and immune health.
Since several micronutrient deficiencies are common in the elderly and associated with poor immune function, assessing micronutrient status is important for this population. This test analyzes vitamins B6, B12, folic acid (folate), iron, and zinc, among others. It also assesses several amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, to assess overall protein status.
Blood cultures may be necessary depending on the presenting symptoms. In the case of geriatric infections, a blood culture can help healthcare providers determine the cause of the infection and the appropriate course of treatment.
Conventional Treatment for Geriatric Infections
Conventional treatment for geriatric infections typically involves the use of antibiotics, antivirals, or other medications, depending on the severity and type of the infection. Treatment may also involve supportive care, such as hydration and pain management.
Preventative Treatment for Recurrent Geriatric Infection with Functional Medicine
Functional medicine offers a holistic and personalized approach to treating geriatric infections. Unlike conventional medicine, which often relies on antibiotics and other medications to treat infections, functional medicine seeks to address the root causes of infections and improve overall health and wellness. This approach may include using antibiotics when necessary but also incorporates other strategies, such as immune-boosting supplements, probiotics to support gut health, and other natural remedies.
How to Improve Immune System with Nutrition
Nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting the immune system and reducing the risk of infections. A low-inflammatory Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, which are food sources of micronutrients, whole grains, healthy protein, and healthy fats, can help improve immune function and reduce inflammation. This diet has been shown to encourage healthy aging and prevent diseases commonly associated with aging.
Supplements and Herbs to Fight Infection
In addition to a healthy diet, the following supplements are beneficial for fighting infections:
Garlic to Fight Infection
Garlic is a popular food and herb that has been used for centuries to fight infections. It has antimicrobial properties that help to kill pathogens like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, making it a powerful tool in the fight against geriatric infections. Additionally, garlic has anti-inflammatory properties that can help to reduce swelling and pain associated with infections.
Echinacea to Fight Infection
Echinacea is an herb that has been traditionally used to stimulate the immune system and fight infections. It contains compounds that can help to activate the body's natural defense mechanisms, making it an effective tool for preventing and treating geriatric infections.
Vitamin C to Fight Infection
Vitamin C is an essential vitamin for immune system support and for fighting infections. It's a powerful antioxidant that can help neutralize harmful free radicals throughout the body, reducing inflammation and supporting the healing process. Vitamin C is also vital for the production of white blood cells (WBC), which are essential for fighting infections in older adults.
Zinc to Fight Infection
Zinc is a mineral that supports immune function and the body's ability to fight infections. It helps activate white blood cells (WBC) and other immune cells, strengthening the body's defense mechanisms against geriatric infections.
Oregano Oil to Fight Infection
Oregano oil is a potent herb that has a history of use for centuries for treating a variety of health conditions, including infections. It contains antimicrobial compounds, making it effective against bacteria and fungi.
Probiotics to Fight Infection
Probiotics support gut health by maintaining a balanced microbiome, promoting digestion and nutrient absorption. They strengthen the immune system, with many immune cells located in the gut, and help combat infections by competing with pathogens for resources and boosting natural defenses through antibacterial production and immune cell activity enhancement.
Complementary and Integrative Medicine for Improved Immune Function
Acupuncture for Improved Immune Function
Acupuncture, a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) therapy, involves the insertion of needles (thin) into certain points on the body, stimulating energy flow and promoting healing. Acupuncture has been shown to positively impact immune function by reducing stress, improving circulation, and reducing inflammation. This helps the body fight off infections and promotes overall health and wellness.
Massage for Improved Immune Function
Massage is a type of therapy that manipulates the soft tissue to promote relaxation and improve circulation. Research shows massage therapy can boost immunity by reducing stress hormones, improving lymphatic function, and increasing natural killer cell activity. These benefits can help the body better fight off infections and promote overall health.
Aromatherapy for Improved Immune Function
Aromatherapy involves using essential oils to enhance physical and emotional well-being. Essential oils, specifically tea tree, lavender, and eucalyptus, have antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties that stimulate the immune system and support the body's ability to fight off infections. Aromatherapy is an excellent complementary therapy for increasing the effectiveness of other conventional treatments and promoting overall health and wellness in older adults.
In conclusion, geriatric infections can significantly impact an older adult's quality of life. By taking a functional medicine approach to treatment, individuals can receive personalized care that addresses the root cause of their infection and supports their overall health and immune function. By incorporating a healthy diet, immune-boosting supplements, and complementary and integrative medicine therapies, individuals can reduce their risk of infections and enhance their overall health and well-being. Collaborating with a functional medicine practitioner to create a thorough and tailored treatment plan for addressing geriatric infections remains a crucial component of this process.
Lab Tests in This Article