Skin problems in older adults: When to worry

Older woman with skin spots

Acercamiento del rostro de una mujer de la tercera edad

As we grow older, our body changes, and our skin is no exception. With age, skin wrinkles and loses firmness and elasticity. With these changes, certain skin conditions arise – some are normal to the aging process, while others may be symptoms of health problems.

Exposure to sunlight is, according to dermatologists, the main cause of skin problems in older adults. However, it isn’t the only one. Other factors could include the progressive loss of collagen, loss of the adipose tissue between skin and muscle that provides lubrication, support and firmness, physical and emotional stress, gravity, and obesity.

Beyond appearance, mature skin goes through functional changes. For example, sweat glands don’t work as efficiently, which makes temperature regulation through sweat a greater challenge.

All these factors, combined with side effects from the consumption of medications and other conditions, lead to skin problems among older adults.

4 common skin problems in older adults

The National Institute on Aging recommends that older adults have their doctor examine the skin over their entire body at least twice a year. A health professional will be able to evaluate the condition of the skin and determine what is a natural sign of aging and what is cause for concern.

The most common skin problems in older adults that require medical attention include:

Chronically dry skin

According to Medscape, over 75 percent of people over the age of 65 have problems with dry skin.

As the sebaceous glands stop working due to aging, the skin dries out more and more. This leads to fragile, irritated skin that easily gets cut and injured, producing lesions that scar and heal with difficulty.

Usually, dry skin also results in itching and a burning sensation. If the skin is scratched, this can lead to abrasions that tend to get infected.

In these cases it’s essential to keep the body hydrated with liquids and to visit the doctor, who will prescribe products appropriate for the degree of dryness of the skin.

In isolated cases, extremely dry skin can be a symptom of diabetes or liver or kidney disease.

Older person's hands with red scaling
Extremely dry skin is common among older adults. In some cases, it leads to an itching and burning sensation and more serious skin lesions. (Photos by FOTOLIA)

Asteatotic eczema

According to the United States Library of Medicine, this type of eczema is an abnormal drying of the skin or the nasal membranes that mainly affects people over the age of 65.

Asteatotic eczema, also called xerosis, usually presents as pruritus, scaling and peeling, irritation, and in some cases, spontaneous cuts (a wound that appears on its own).

This condition requires medical attention and follow-up to avoid complications such as infections and bleeding.

Purpura senilis

Purpura is one of the most common skin conditions in older adults, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. It presents as vasculitis (an inflammation of the blood vessels of the skin) with bleeding and a rash. In some cases, the kidneys and intestines can also develop purpura and start bleeding.

The marks produced by purpura are dark and localized and in the form of red splotches or bruises. In some cases this condition also leads to joint pain, digestive problems and vomiting that lasts from 4 to 6 weeks.

Purpura requires medical attention and follow-up to avoid complications and to rule out other possible causes of the bleeding.

Chronic venous insufficiency

According to the University of Chicago Medical School, chronic venous insufficiency presents skin symptoms, but it is caused by a circulatory problem.   

In this condition the valves of the veins fail to work properly to regulate the double flow of blood (the veins carry the blood from the extremities toward the heart), which leads to an accumulation of blood in the legs, causing chronic inflammation with skin ulcers and pain.

Other symptoms of this condition include varicose veins, skin that changes to a brown or purplish color, swelling, especially of the lower legs, and an increase in pain when in movement.

A visit to the doctor is highly recommended for treating this condition and keeping the ulcers from becoming infected, managing the pain, and ruling out vascular complications.

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