When you think about nursing homes, chances are good you picture well-lit, safe facilities where elderly patients can receive the ongoing medical care they need from trained medical professionals while interacting with their peers. However, that’s all too often not the case. In fact, nursing homes are breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses, making them very unsafe.
The Situation Today
According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) published in 2011, there are over 1.5 million elderly living in nursing homes across the country. That population experiences roughly 2 million infections per year. By 2030, the number of people living in nursing homes is expected to top 5.3 million, and the rise in annual infections will be significant.
There are many types of infection that are more common in nursing homes than others are, and these have been detailed below.
For healthy, younger people, pneumonia is a serious condition with a good chance of a full recovery. For elderly patients, pneumonia can be a death sentence. Pneumonia and lower respiratory tract infections have become very common today and are the leading cause of hospitalization for nursing home residents. In fact, nursing home residents account for up to 18% of all hospitalizations for pneumonia.
UTI (Urinary Tract Infection)
Urinary tract infections are the most common type of infection in all nursing homes. This is particularly true for any patients with an indwelling catheter, which are common among nursing home patients. By the time a patient has had such a catheter for a month, there is a 100% chance they will have developed a UTI.
Both viruses and bacteria can cause diarrhea, and both are prevalent within nursing home environments. Due to the reduction in stomach acid in elderly patients, even normal levels of bacteria can cause diarrhea and viruses that might not bother younger people can be devastating to the elderly. The primary risk here is dehydration, which can lead to death in many cases.
Skin infections are also common in nursing homes. This is due to some different factors, including the changes to the skin during the aging process that make it more susceptible to pathogens, as well as the potential for bedsores on patients immobilized in beds and wheelchairs. All skin infections must be recognized early and treated quickly to minimize pain and discomfort, and to reduce the risk of the infection spreading and potentially causing the death of the patient.
Upper Respiratory Tract Infections
While pneumonia and lower respiratory tract infections are common in nursing homes, upper respiratory tract infections are also common. These are most often introduced by staff members or visitors and can move through the nursing home’s population like wildfire. Some different pathogens can be responsible here, including influenza A, chlamydia pneumonia, RSV, parainfluenza virus and Legionella Saint Helens to name just a few.
We’re familiar with the threat of the annual flu season and the risk it poses to even healthy, younger individuals. However, for the elderly, particularly those within the close confines of a nursing home, the flu can be devastating. Influenza A is the most common virus, followed by influenza B, but both can affect 40% or more of the population of a single facility in a very short time, and often affect more than one facility within a specific region at the same time.
For Nursing Homes, Preparedness Is Key
Given the significantly higher mortality rate of even “mild” viruses and infections within a nursing home, it is crucial that staff is prepared to prevent nursing home infections and to diagnose them quickly when they appear. This is the key to helping ensure the best chance of survival for elderly patients, as well as limiting the spread of the contagion within the population of the facility. Good handwashing techniques must be practiced, and proper patient hygiene and nutrition are also essential to help bolster immune systems that might otherwise be compromised.