When it comes to the elderly, it’s important to respect them and their privacy, even when it comes to health. However, there are several instances that could be concerning and must be addressed quickly in order to avoid complications, and in many cases, the senior may not be aware of the underlying issue or may not notice the symptoms. This can be the case with a urinary tract infection, or UTI. Even more concerning, those symptoms may not be readily apparent to caretakers without proper education.
What is a UTI?
A urinary tract infection is caused by bacteria or fungus that enters a part of the urinary system, including the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys. When a typical individual contracts a UTI, there are common symptoms to look for, such as:
- Greater urgency and frequency of the need to urinate
- Greater amounts of urine
- Burning, pain, and discomfort when urinating
- Sensations of pressure in the lower abdomen, as well as in the pelvic region
- Cloudy or smelly urine
- Never quite feeling as though the bladder is empty
- Pain in the back, flank, or lower abdomen
- Blood in the urine
UTI symptoms in seniors
For seniors, many of the symptoms of a UTI are linked to changes in behavior and may include:
- Social withdrawal
Many of these mimic the signs of dementia, and the initial reaction to a senior acting in this way may be fear of developing or worsening dementia or Alzheimer’s. The first thing to do is to find out if the elderly individual has a UTI, since a UTI can exacerbate symptoms of dementia or cause these symptoms in an elderly individual who has not developed dementia.
Why are symptoms different in the elderly?
Scientists and the medical community aren’t completely certain of the exact reason for the change in physiology. However, the fact is that the immune system changes as people age, which could lead to a different reaction to the bacterial infection. In addition, some theorize that the blood vessels weaken with age, making the blood more susceptible to carrying the infection through to the nervous system and thereby affecting the brain functionality in seniors.
Risk factors for UTIs in the elderly
The elderly are sometimes already at greater risk for UTIs because they are often not as active as younger individuals. Extended immobility can lead to a UTI because the person isn’t able to expel urine as frequently, allowing for the bacteria to cultivate in the urine in the bladder. Other risk factors may be similar to those in younger people, though more significant, such as:
- Weakened immune system
- Being female (as well as postmenopausal)
- Exposure to bacteria found in hospitals and care facilities
- Enlarged or shrunken prostate
- Use of a catheter
Complications from UTIs in seniors
A UTI that goes untreated in anyone can lead to complications. However, there is more at risk in the elderly than any other category of individual.
- Kidney damage. A typical UTI can become more difficult to treat and tolerate if it moves into the kidneys. In addition, it can cause scarring on the kidneys, which leads to potential for hypertension and kidney failure.
- Septicemia. Because kidney function can be reduced, some of the waste they would normally filter out and push from the body with urination may flow back into the bloodstream, leading to illness, which is difficult on the senior’s immune system.
- Sepsis. In the same process, the infection may enter the bloodstream, leading to poisoning that is a life threatening issue.
- Worsening dementia. While the symptoms of confusion that a UTI causes in the elderly may not cause dementia, if the condition develops in a patient who already has dementia, this infection could cause a quicker progression of dementia, leading to worsening overall health for the elderly patient.
Prevention of UTIs in the elderly
It’s important to address the issue in advance in the attempt to prevent UTIs in seniors. Several methods of prevention exist, including:
- Reminding the individual to drink plenty of water (six to eight glasses a day)
- Avoiding consumption of alcohol and caffeine as much as possible
- Encouraging the senior to use the restroom frequently, at least every three hours
- Promptly caring for soiled materials due to incontinence
- Wiping from front to back when using the restroom
- Promoting good hygiene, such as daily showers, and avoiding baths
Diagnosis and treatment in seniors
Diagnosis of a UTI begins with a physical exam and urinalysis. The urine sample is cultured to see what sort of bacteria grows so that the correct treatment is offered. In addition, other testing may include a CT scan, x-rays, and an ultrasound.
Depending on whether the infection is caused by bacteria or a fungus, doctors will prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal medication to clear up the issue. It’s important to note all medications the senior is currently taking so that the doctor doesn’t prescribe anything that could cause an interaction or be detrimental to the patient’s health. In extreme cases, with infections that have progressed and are severe, intravenous antibiotics may be required.
Unless a senior already has dementia, it is unlikely that the symptoms of confusion and behavioral changes they experience during a UTI will be permanent. However, if not treated quickly in those with dementia, the infection could exacerbate symptoms and cause a faster progression of the neurological condition. Making sure the individual is following good practices for prevention of UTIs can help increase overall health and happiness, especially in the golden years.