As we grow older we find that normal tasks, usually quite simple and easy become more complex and problematic. Bending down all the way to tie your shoes or remembering where you put your car keys. It is a normal part of progressing in age. Part and parcel of this change is the myriad of health changes that we go through. Our immune system becomes weaker so the healing process takes longer. Because of this change elderly persons are more susceptible to infections like UTI’s.
What is a UTI?
UTI stands for a urinary tract infection. It is an infection involving the kidneys, ureters, bladder, or urethra, the structures that urine passes through before being eliminated by the body. Any part of this system can become infected. As a rule the farther up the tract the infection is located the more serious it is. Urine is normally sterile and infection occurs when bacteria get into the urine and begin to grow. The infection usually starts at the opening of the urethra where the urine leaves the body and moves upward to the urinary tract.
What are the symptoms?
The classic symptoms of UTIs are mild fever, chills or just not feeling well, cloudy, bad smelling or bloody urine, burning during urination, and frequent urination or leaking. In elderly people the classic symptoms of a UTI may not be present due to the poor immune system’s ability to fight the infection or an inability to express discomfort. Common symptoms to look out for are poor appetite, lethargy or a change in mental status – confusion, agitation or withdrawal. If there is mild dementia present, days and nights can get mixed up and normal levels of confusion and other behaviours will be exacerbated.
Are UTIs dangerous?
The threat posed to an elderly person varies, some are very mild while others can be life threatening but typically, ordinary UITs are not especially dangerous to older people. For people who have dementia the symptoms can be misdiagnosed as part of the dementia condition. If the underlying UTI goes unrecognised and untreated for too long it can spread to the blood stream and become life threatening. Thus confusion in the elderly is often attributed to UTIs. Many infections are asymptomatic causing little or no symptoms at all. Often attempts to get to the toilet can quickly result in slipping or falling, thus increasing the risk of broken bones, surgery, death or disability.
How do you reduce the risk of UTIs?
People with incontinence are more at risk for UITs because of the close contact that adult briefs have with their skin which can reintroduce bacteria into the bladder. For these individuals encourage the frequent change of adult briefs, keep the genital area clean, encourage front to back cleansing and for memory impaired people set regular reminders to use the bathroom to avoid the need for adult briefs. Other ways to reduce the UTI risk are drinking enough liquids. Cranberry juice or cranberry tablets are known to reduce the risk of UTI but not in people prone to kidney stones. Avoid caffeine and alcohol as these irritate the bladder. Wear cotton-cloth underwear and practice emptying the bladder completely when going to the toilet.
If you notice any of the above symptoms please seek medical help.