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updated: 1/23/2013 3:58 PM

Eldercare expert warns MRSA infections pose increased risk for seniors

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  • Mardy Chizek, Westmont Eldercare Navigator

    Mardy Chizek, Westmont Eldercare Navigator
    Mardy Chizek

David Brimm

Antibiotics are usually effective for treating bacterial infections, but due to the proliferation of antibiotic treatments, some types of bacteria are showing resistance to treatment. One of the bacteria that is causing concern is Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines MRSA as a type of staphlococcal (staph) bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics called beta-lactams. These antibiotics include methicillin and other common antibiotics such as oxacillin, penicillin, and amoxicillin.

The proportion of healthcare-associated staphylococcal infections that are due to MRSA has been increasing: 2 percent of S. aureus infections in U.S. intensive-care units were MRSA in 1974; 22 percent in 1995; and 64 percent in 2004.

"The symptoms of MRSA depend on where you're infected. Most often, it causes mild infections on the skin, like sores or boils. What concerns health professionals is that while MRSA is serious it is not usually life threatening in younger, healthier patients, but it can cause more serious infections in wounds, the bloodstream, bones, the lungs, or the urinary tract in seniors and in immune compromised individuals," according to Mardy Chizek, RN, FNP, BSN, MBA, AAS and president of Westmont's Charism Elder Care Services.

Chizek notes that a study from Linköping University in Sweden indicates that the mortality rate can be 50 percent higher for intensive care patients infected with MRSA. This means added risk to seniors who may be compromised from other conditions or diseases. Patients may enter the hospital already carrying the MRSA organism (in fact, 30 percent of us carry staph bacteria in our noses). Many hospitals culture patients for MRSA when they enter the hospital in an attempt to be proactive with treatment.

Serious staph infections are more common in people with a weakened immune system. A weakened immune system may be due to drugs, surgery or therapies or may be due to aging. As our body ages, it is less able to fight infections as vigorously as when we were younger. Diseases like cancer, lung disease, heart disease and immune related conditions also increase the risk of an adverse outcome due to MRSA.

The CDC notes that most MRSA infections are skin infections that may appear as pustules or boils which often are red, swollen, painful, or have pus or other drainage. They often first look like spider bites or bumps that are red, swollen, and painful. These skin infections commonly occur at sites of visible skin trauma, such as cuts and abrasions, and areas of the body covered by hair (e.g., back of neck, groin, buttock, armpit, beard area of men). The infection may also be accompanied by fever, swollen and red areas, and may be seen around surgical wounds or invasive devices, like catheters or feeding tubes.

Infections in hospitals and other healthcare facilities are not always preventable. Patients and visitors bring their own body's normal bacteria to the institution. Other patients have infections that bring them to the hospital and they require intensive antibiotic treatment. Is it any wonder that MRSA and other infections are always in healthcare facilities?

The best way to protect yourself is a good hand washing. The type of soap and temperature of the water are less important than the friction. A fun rule of thumb is to wash your hands to the tune of Yankee Doodle. When you are done with the song, your hands have received an adequate scrub.

Alcohol solutions are equally effective, but must cover the entire surface of the hand like hand washing. You never completely rid your hands of organisms, but you decrease the number of organisms to a point where the number of bacteria or virus are minimized and less able to spread infection.

"As with any other change, report it to your healthcare provider as soon as you note or suspect an infection. Fever, heat, redness and pain are indicators of a bacterial infection and may require antibiotic therapy. But remember, that over utilization of antibiotics have prompted the onset of bacteria like MRSA that are immune to some antibiotics", Chizek warns. She adds that, "prudent use of antibiotics will allow bacteria to continue to be sensitive to existing antibiotics."

For more information on MRSA or infections in seniors, visit Charism Elder Care Services at