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How to Protect Your Health During a Hospital Stay

When you go to a hospital, you hope to leave in better health than when you arrived, but unfortunately, many of us end up getting sicker when we have a hospital stay. While this situation can confront any one of any age, our age group is at increased risk because we may have less robust immune systems that leave us more vulnerable to a variety of infections.

We also tend to visit the hospital more frequently than our younger counterparts. The longer the stay, the greater the chance something negative will happen.

I believe three hospital related illnesses or conditions pose the greatest health risks to boomers.


The first of these, and one that I have previously written on here at Sixty and Me, is sepsis. It kills more people annually than breast cancer, opioid overdoses, and HIV/AIDS combined.

Sepsis occurs when chemicals released in the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammation throughout the body. Think of it as our immune systems going into overdrive to battle the infection, whether it be bacterial, fungal, or viral. The resulting inflammation can end up damaging our organs and causing them to fail.

Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, fast heart rate and mental confusion. Treatment generally includes antibiotics and intravenous fluids. Many patients who survive severe sepsis recover completely, and their lives return to normal. But others may have permanent organ damage.

Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAIs)

The second threat to our health in hospitals is healthcare-associated infections or HAIs. Unlike other infections, such as the common cold, that we may pick-up in our day-to-day lives, we get HAIs by virtue of being in healthcare settings such as a hospital, renal disease facility, or long-term care facility.

Unfortunately, hospitals are breeding grounds for infectious agents such as bacteria. And bacteria and other pathogens can be found literally anywhere in a hospital – even in places that we may not consider to be risky. One example of this are hospital floors, which most of us expect would be almost clean enough to “eat off of” as the familiar saying goes.

One recent study, for example, found that the floors of patient rooms are quickly contaminated shortly after they are cleaned. Of course, outside of a sealed sterile environment, some contamination is inevitable. But what researchers found is that the bacteria and other pathogens on the floors of a patient’s room can readily be transferred to other patients, increasing their risk for a variety of infections.

They also can make their way to hospital staff, to visitors and even to other parts of the hospital by hitching a ride on anything that touches the floor (think television remote, chairs, purses, bed linen, and the nurse call button).


The third condition that we can acquire because of a hospital stay – and especially a prolonged one – is delirium. This condition is defined as the sudden onset of confusion and can happen to anyone. People older than 65 are especially at risk and often misdiagnosed as having dementia. (Dementia develops gradually and worsens progressively, whereas delirium is sudden and fluctuates during the day.)

Delirium cases may be preventable because they are usually triggered and worsened by large doses of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines and the hospital environment. Patients developing this condition have a higher risk of mortality and dementia.

What is truly scary is that delirium may go unrecognized and undiagnosed during a hospital stay, and symptoms – such as hallucinations, delusions, and inability to focus – can persist for months.

What Can We Do to Return Home Healthy?

The good news is that there are steps we can take to reduce our risk of leaving the hospital worse off than we arrived.

The first is to do all we can to make sure our immune systems and general health are in the best possible shape before we check-in. And while I appreciate that not all hospital visits are planned, there are many things we can do to put us in a better position when we need urgent care or the emergency room.

It is always important to get regular nutrient tests to ensure you are getting necessary nutrients and in the right amounts. If the test identifies any imbalances, and especially in immune-boosting nutrients such as zinc, vitamins C and D, and selenium, you can work with a competent healthcare practitioner to achieve balance before you go to the hospital.

Quick Proactive Checklist

You can also proactively reduce your risk of sepsis, an HAI or dementia while you are in the hospital by doing the following:

  • Get vaccinated against infections both in general and for those diseases with a recognized link to developing sepsis.
  • Talk with your doctor about keeping the use of anti-anxiety medications to a minimum to reduce the chances of developing delirium.
  • Practice good hygiene (such as frequent and correct hand washing) and maintaining good nutrition, hydration, sleep and exercise habits.
  • Do not share personal items while in the hospital (such as towels).
  • Do not be shy about asking doctors and nurses to clean equipment – especially stethoscopes – before using them (ditto about washing their hands and changing gloves).
  • Talk with your doctor and other healthcare providers in the hospital to limit the amount of time you are in bed and to maximize activity (even a walk down the hall) to the extent possible.
  • Avoid touching, as much as possible, things in your room that come in contact with the floor, such as shoes and slippers.
  • Bring your own sanitizing/disinfecting wipes and/or spray, and clean surfaces before you touch or use them, for example the television remote, call button, doorknobs, or bed rails.
  • Change non-slip socks before getting back into bed after using the washroom, stretching your legs, or visiting other parts of the hospital.
  • Keep your tray on the portable table and avoid putting the plate or utensils on your bed (and don’t put food on your bed either).
  • Immediately alert medical staff if you start to experience signs of a possible infection, such as feeling feverish, experiencing new or worsening pain, sweating or general malaise.
  • Allow people to clean your room while you’re in the hospital, even when it feels inconvenient for you.

By taking the steps necessary to keep our bodies as healthy as possible and taking some common-sense steps, we can greatly increase our chances of leaving the hospital healthier than when we arrived.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you or anyone you know ever gotten sick from hospital stay? If so, what happened? Was it sepsis, an HAI, delirium, or something else such as a fall? Did you, your doctor or hospital staff take steps before and during your stay to help keep you healthy? If so, what were they?

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I obtained a staph infection that took several months on strong antibiotics to get rid of.


My daughter is a nurse and she will not let me go to a hospital unless it is absolutely necessary. I am 68 and have some health problems. I use to visit people that were patients but she strongly recommends that I do not go. She has an extra pair of shoes that stay in her car for when she works. She never wears her work shoes into the house and showers as soon as her shift is finished. She just says that we have no idea of all the things we are exposed to in a hospital.
Please consider the good advice offered in this article.


Not all “older” patients are immunocompromised. I’ve written an article about some misconceptions of aging –

It’s important to avoid being in the hospital in the first place. A lot of surgery and other medical treatment is not necessary. Always get a second opinion and ask about success percentages.

A few things you can do:
Make sure you really need that hospital visit. If you say “outpatient or nothing” a lot of times they’ll find a way to do it. Get a second opinion if necessary.
Insist on being allowed to sleep all night without interruption. Tell your doctor if someone wakes you up, you won’t let them touch you. It’s your right.
Sleep loss is a great way to lower your resistance and risk infection.
Leave as soon as possible. From everything I’ve read, it is NOT true that insurance won’t reimburse you if you leave against medical advice. People sneak out all the time.

I try to be nice but I’ve found if they know you’re not going to be a pushover, they treat you better. A strong family member might help if you have one…a tall male who’s a lawyer is ideal.

Joy Stephenson-Lawsph

Catharine I totally agree that not all ‘older patients are immunocompromised. As the article above states – “our age group is at increased risk because we may have less robust immune systems that leave us more vulnerable to a variety of infections.” The reality is that as we age, we are more likely to have compromised immune systems and that is why we have to be proactive and take steps to reduce the likelihood of that happening. And there are many things we can do to boost our immune system – some of which I have written about here as well. And great suggestions to make sure you really need to be hospitalized.


Back when I was young(under fifty) my husband was in and out of hospitals and ICUs and many ambulance rides. He was a strong and healthy man of fifty one but a saddle pulmonary embolism nearly killed him and left him with permanent health issues. Whilst he never caught MRSA, I saw many elderly patients in the hospital that had picked it up during previous stays. It really made a huge impression on me so ever since we are super careful when he is in hospital again. My aunt was hit hard by post-anesthesia delirium and it was an educational experience for the whole family. I do think that so many hospitals in the States keep a bare minimum of housekeeping staff and they are way over-worked. I have actually asked for my husband’s room to be cleaned and was super nice to the cleaners. Oddly enough, I became ill from an untreated UTI that led to sepia scarily fast. Never want to do that again! Excellent article.


Thank you for this very important information.

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The Author

Joy Stephenson-Laws is the founder of Proactive Health Labs (, a national non-profit health information company that provides education and tools needed to achieve optimal health. Her most recent book is Minerals - The Forgotten Nutrient: Your Secret Weapon for Getting and Staying Healthy, available through Amazon, iTunes and bookstores.

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