Infections can strike anyone, but for seniors, certain infections can be particularly serious. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, infections account for one-third of all deaths in people aged 65 years and older. Many of these infections are preventable and treatable with prompt medical attention.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are one of the most common infections in seniors, with around 10 percent of the elderly population developing a symptomatic UTI in any given year. These infections are caused when bacteria enter the urinary tract via the urethra (the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body) and move upward to the bladder and sometimes the kidneys, where they multiply. Although the urinary tract is designed to keep bacteria out, it sometimes fails. When that happens, the bacteria may cause an infection in the urinary tract.
Seniors are more susceptible to UTIs for many reasons: Weakened immunity, higher risk of catheter use, use of medicines that can cause urination difficulties, bladder prolapse (problems with the bladder falling out-of-place) and reduced ability to empty the bladder completely upon urination. While these risk factors for UTIs are shared by men and women, other risk factors differ by gender. Female risk factors include low estrogen levels after the menopause and bulging of the bladder into the vagina (bladder prolapse) while male risk factors include prostate gland problems, such as prostate gland enlargement and prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate gland).
UTIs do not always cause outward signs and symptoms in seniors, but when they do they may include an urge to urinate regularly, pain on passing urine, blood in the urine, pelvic pain in women and rectal pain in men. In seniors, especially those with dementia, UTIs can cause new or worsened confusion. This is caused by a combination of factors, such dehydration and fever.
Prompt medical attention must be sought whenever UTIs are suspected in the elderly. In most cases, addressing UTIs is relatively straightforward. A simple urine test can confirm the presence of infection and treatment with the right antibiotics usually clears up the infection in a few days. When antibiotics are prescribed, seniors should take their pills on schedule and finish their full course of pills, even if their symptoms have cleared up. Improperly treated UTIs can have serious consequences – they can cause kidney damage and blood poisoning, which can be fatal.
Seniors can prevent or minimize the recurrence of UTIs with some simple lifestyle changes. They should drink between six and eight glasses of fluid a day to promote urination, which helps to clear bacteria from the urinary tract. They should also eat plenty of high-fiber foods to prevent constipation, which stops the bladder from emptying properly.
Women should take additional steps to prevent UTIs. They should wipe from front to back (urethra to anus) after using the toilet to reduce the risk of bringing bacteria closer to the urethra and avoid using potentially irritating feminine hygiene products, such as powders and douches.
For seniors and caregivers, it is critical to stay alert to the often elusive signs and symptoms of UTIs. By remaining vigilant, they can stay one step ahead in maintaining wellness.