People arriving at the emergency room for a fall may be there due to an underlying infection rather than clumsiness, a new study suggests.
Infection-related falls usually affect older people but can happen to anyone, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital warn.
“Over the years I’ve been struck by the fact that some of the more serious infections I treated were in people who came to the hospital because they fell,” said the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Farrin Manian, a clinician educator in the hospital’s division of general medicine.
“Even though many of the patients had vague early signs of an infection, such as weakness or lethargy, it was the fall that brought them in,” Manian said in a news release from Infectious Diseases Week, the annual meeting of specialists in infectious illness. The new findings were presented at this year’s meeting in San Diego.
Other research suggests between 20 percent and 45 percent of falls are caused by infection, the study authors said. They noted, however, that many relatives, health care workers and caregivers don’t associate falls with possible illness.
Infections can lower blood pressure and lead to dizziness and lightheadedness, increasing the risk for a tumble. Illness can also increase confusion in older people with dementia, the study authors said.
The study involved 161 patients treated in the ER for a fall who were later diagnosed with an underlying infection. Urinary, bloodstream and respiratory infections were the most common culprits.
Initially, infection wasn’t suspected in four out of 10 patients. This may have been because many of the patients had only one or no common signs of infection, such as fever, abnormal white blood cell count and rapid heart rate, the researchers said.
The falls were most common among older people, but 20 percent of the patients were younger than 65, the study found.
Health care providers, family members and caregivers should consider how patients felt before the accident, and not assume they tripped, Manian and colleagues said in the news release.
Until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, data and conclusions presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on falls.