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Taking good care of your skin should be a priority at any age, but it’s even more important for seniors. As we age, skincare issues go well beyond wrinkles and age spots. Skin becomes thinner and dryer, making it more susceptible to infection and disease. It also injures more easily and heals more slowly. Skin issues in seniors can range from mild itchiness to serious ulcerations and skin cancer. Some of the most common skin conditions to be aware of include:
Pruritus – the clinical name for itchy skin – can be a symptom for many skin conditions or even some internal diseases such as diabetes. Most often, however, it’s due to extremely dry skin. Thinner skin, slower skin cell turnover, and a reduction in oil gland production all lead to drier skin. Harsh soaps, overheated homes, and even mild dehydration can exacerbate the problem.
Thinning skin and more fragile blood vessels lead to increased bruising as we age. Certain medications, including blood thinners, can also make skin bruise more easily. Often, bruises may appear without any apparent injury. Bruising may be unsightly and uncomfortable, but it’s generally not a cause for concern. However, bruises that are larger than your hand, are painful, or don’t begin to heal within a few days may need medical attention.
Caused by the same virus as chickenpox, shingles is a common – and potentially serious -- occurrence in seniors. Early symptoms can include itchy or tingly skin, but a painful rash and even blisters may soon follow. If you have a rash that is more painful than itchy, call your doctor immediately. Antiviral medications can help rashes heal quicker, and pain medications and topical creams can ease some of the discomfort.
Bacterial and parasitic infections
It’s unpleasant to think about, but scabies and ringworm are common skin infections experienced by seniors. Scabies is caused by a burrowing mite, and results in itching that may be more severe at night, along with burrow tracks of tiny blisters or bumps on the skin. Ringworm is a fungal infection, and gets its name from the ring-like, red and scaly rash that it produces. Both infections are highly contagious, but are usually easily treated with prescription medication.
The risk of skin cancer increases with age, and is the most serious skin concern. It’s also very common: 40-50% of all Americans will have at least one skin cancer by the age of 65. Family history, sun exposure, and light eyes or skin are all risk factors, but virtually everyone is at risk for skin cancer. New or unusual skin growths, scaly patches or bumps that don’t go away, and moles that are large or change over time are all symptoms of skin cancer that need to be evaluated by your doctor immediately.
Though some conditions are an inevitable part of aging, there are several things you can do to protect your skin and avoid problems:
- Stay hydrated by drinking enough liquids throughout the day.
- Use a humidifier to combat the dry air in your home, particularly during the winter.
- Trim fingernails to avoid accidently scratching the skin, which can invite infection.
- Avoid hot baths and showers to reduce drying effects on skin.
- Use gentle soaps and shampoo when bathing, and apply moisturizer while skin is still damp.
- Quit smoking. Cigarette smoke gives skin a leathery, dry feeling.
- Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more before going outside, even on cloudy days.
- Get regular skin screenings for unusual moles or skin changes.
This article first appeared in the March 2016 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.