Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) in the Elderly

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are one of the most common infections in the body. Approximately 40 to 50% of women and 10 to 15% of men will suffer from a UTI at least once in their lifetime. 

For most of these individuals, the problem amounts to little more than frequent urination, a burning sensation, and a great deal of discomfort. For the elderly, though, UTIs may cause confusion and they usually have a larger impact on a person’s health and daily activities.

What is a UTI?

A UTI occurs when bacteria enter the urinary tract, a system formed by the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. The symptoms include:

  • Pain in the pelvis
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Fever and chills
  • Discolored urine

If the infection spreads to the kidneys, which is more common in pregnant women, back pain, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms may be present.

Different types of bacteria are responsible for UTIs, but the most common is Escherichia coli, best known as E. coli, which is present in fecal matter.

Complications of UTIs in Seniors

UTIs present elderly individuals with many unique challenges that become more problematic if the patient has dementia or mobility problems.

For example, someone with dementia may not understand what is happening to them and, therefore, will not disclose their symptoms to their caregivers or loved ones. In addition, UTIs are known to cause confusion in dementia sufferers and if it’s not treated, the infection may worsen their condition and reduce their quality of life.

If you suspect that an elderly care recipient may have a UTI, pay attention to their toileting needs and the color of their urine. 

The frequent need to urinate may cause distress in patients with mobility problems. If they struggle to make it to the toilet in time, they may suffer from occasional incontinence. 

UTI Treatments for Seniors

While UTIs can be problematic for seniors with dementia and mobility problems, they are also relatively easy to treat. A doctor will analyze the urine to determine if there is an infection and will then prescribe an antibiotic to treat it. 

The patient is advised to drink lots of water and maintain a high standard of personal hygiene, after which the infection should pass within a few days.

If UTIs have developed repeatedly, the following methods can help to reduce the risk of recurrence:

  • Drink lots of fluids
  • Limit the consumption of alcohol and caffeine
  • Avoid using vaginal douches
  • Use the toilet as soon as the urge hits
  • Practice good personal hygiene
  • Keep the genital area clean
  • If wearing incontinence pads, make sure they are regularly changed

Who is at Risk of UTIs?

Female urethras are shorter than males, which is why UTIs are significantly more common in women. They become increasingly common with age, especially in men, and some of the risk factors include:

  • Frequent sex, especially with multiple different partners
  • Kidney stones
  • Menopause
  • Surgical interventions involving the urinary tract
  • Diabetes
  • Weakened immune system
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Use of tampons
  • Use of antibiotics
  • Poor hygiene

In elderly people, a history of UTIs is the biggest risk factor. In other words, if you have had numerous UTIs in the past, you are considerably more likely to get them again. Other risk factors include the use of a catheter, incontinence, and dementia.

It’s believed that post-menopausal women carry a greater risk because of the reduced amounts of estrogen, which may play a role in protecting the urinary tract against infections. 

As for men, the reason their risk increases so significantly is because the likelihood of prostate problems, kidney stones, bladder stones, and catheter use (all major risk factors) are higher.

What Happens if the UTI is Not Treated?

The prognosis of a UTI infection is generally very good, but as with any condition, it needs to be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. If not, the infection can spread to the kidneys and bloodstream, creating potentially serious complications that may require weeks of care and recovery.

UTI symptoms also mimic the symptoms of other conditions, including kidney stones, which are small mineral deposits that form in the kidneys and cause pain when they create a blockage. It’s important, therefore, to consult with your doctor as soon as you experience the first signs of infection or notice these symptoms in a care recipient.