Bacterial skin infections in the elderly: diagnosis and treatment

Drugs Aging. 2002;19(5):331-42. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200219050-00002.


Skin and soft tissue infections are quite common in elderly people. A number of special conditions and circumstances need to be considered in the diagnosis and therapy. It is important to try to establish the causative organism, exclude other cutaneous disorders and identify precipitating factors. Treatment modalities include antiseptics, topical and systemic antibacterials, dressings and biotherapy. Skin infections presenting with erythema, blisters, pustules, and ulcerations or in body folds are described in detail. Cellulitis and infected ulcers are the most commonly encountered cutaneous infections in the elderly. Accurate and quick diagnosis and treatment are imperative to prevent significant morbidity and mortality. Appropriate antibacterials, antiseptics and dressings are necessary depending on the severity of the clinical presentation and resistance patterns. Laboratory tests, such as skin swabs, to establish the exact pathogen take time and the results might represent colonisation rather than infection of the skin. Cellulitis should be clinically distinguished from erysipelas and necrotising fasciitis. The latter is a life-threatening condition, which in the majority of cases requires surgical debridement of the infected tissue. Blisters and honey-coloured crusts are typical features of impetigo. It is very contagious and close contacts should be examined. Folliculitis is a commonly seen skin infection, which often responds to the use of antiseptics and topical antibacterials. More severe pustular skin eruptions, such as furunculosis and carbunculosis, usually require treatment with systemic antibacterials. Intertrigo and erythrasma have a predilection for the body folds, especially the axillae and groin, and topical therapy is usually sufficient. Secondary skin infections are often the result of persistent pruritus associated with increasing dryness of the aging skin. Emollients and antihistamines are useful measures. Primary cutaneous disorders and systemic diseases should be excluded with the aid of appropriate investigations, such as blood tests and skin biopsy. Staphylococcus aureus and beta-haemolytic streptococci are the most common causative organisms of cutaneous infections.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anti-Infective Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Biological Dressings
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / diagnosis*
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / microbiology
  • Skin Diseases, Infectious / therapy*


  • Anti-Infective Agents