Urinary tract infections: Fact of life or severe health risk? The difference likely depends on the patient’s age, and gender.
Women become more prone to developing urinary tract infections (UTIs) as they grow older, and those who are postmenopausal are most vulnerable. One in 10 women aged 65 and older report having at least one UTI a year, according to the National Library of Medicine. Nearly one-third of women older than 85 experience one annually.
For many of these women, the infection creates health risks well beyond the urinary tract. Now is an appropriate time to understand the serious side effects of UTIs among older women – November is National Family Caregivers Month, an observance of the caregivers in our lives and a reminder to look out for the elders we love.
UTIs, Like All Infections, Can Become Serious
Untreated, a UTI can spread from the bladder to the kidneys and bloodstream, and cause confusion that can lead to injury or distress. If you or someone you care for is an older woman, recognizing the symptoms can make the difference between over-the-counter medicinal treatment or long-term hospital care.
These 4 Conditions Can Result From UTIs in Older Women
Here are the major complications to look out for.
- Confusion and delirium – Research has shown women older than 70 and those with dementia are at higher risk of suffering confusion from a UTI. This may be because the inflammation from a UTI has a better chance of affecting the brains of the elderly. Also, the patient may simply be unable to communicate her symptoms. Up to half of people with dementia visit an emergency room in a given year, and the most frequent diagnosis is a UTI, according to the National Library of Medicine.
- Bladder infection – Most UTI infections reach the bladder. However, because UTIs are more common among older women, and may take longer to diagnosis, the bladder could suffer more damage. An untreated UTI can lead to a bladder infection.
- Kidney Infection –Untreated, a UTI-related bladder infection will travel to the kidneys. A sudden, severe kidney infection (pyelonephritis) can cause permanent kidney scarring and damage.
- Sepsis –A prolonged, untreated UTI could result in a potentially life-threatening form of infection called sepsis. This risk heightens if the infection has travelled to the kidneys.
Why Older Women Are More Vulnerable to UTI Damage
UTIs become more serious as women age because the good bacteria that fight infections in our bladders and urinary tracts – part of the microbiome – can weaken with time.
This inability to fight infection occurs for a number of reasons. A decline in the female hormone estrogen is a major factor because its acidic presence in the vagina discourages bad bacterial growth and makes good bacteria healthier.
After menopause, estrogen levels drop, and the tissue between the urethra and vaginal opening lose that acidity. Without that acidic barrier, bad bacteria can more easily grow and work its way up the urinary tract.
Weakened pelvic floor muscles, a common condition among postmenopausal women who have had children, also contribute to higher UTIs. This is because a weak pelvis makes it harder to completely empty out the bladder, and bacteria breed well inside inactive urine.
Take UTIs Seriously, Before One Becomes Serious
The most common symptoms of a UTIs include pain and burning during urination, sudden increases in frequency or urgency, and pain or tenderness in the pelvis. Here are a few easy steps to keep bacterial infections at bay:
- Drink lots of water to flush out bad bacteria, but don’t overdo it. Aim for urine that is pale yellow to gold.
- Post-menopausal women can apply low-dose vaginal cream to support the tissue and maintain good bacteria.
- Eat high-probiotic food, which supports good bacteria. Cranberry supplements and juice are recommended for women prone to UTIs.
- Consider the supplement D-Mannose, which sticks to the receptors in the bladder that attract UTI-causing bacteria.
This month, make UTI awareness a cause among your family and friends, and keep the awareness alive throughout the year. UTIs tend to be more common in warm weather, for example, and those we care for will need us then, too.
To learn more about UTIs, signs, and treatment, click here.