How to recognize and reduce risk of UTIs in seniors and older women

September 21, 2018 Providence Health Team

Urinary tract infection (UTI) is common and recurrent in older adults, especially women. According to a paper published by the National Institutes of Health: “Over 10% of women older than 65 years of age reported having a UTI within the past 12 months.” The same paper reported research that found having a prior UTI made postmenopausal women more than four times as likely to develop another UTI in the future than women who had never been diagnosed with one before.

The frequency of the diagnoses rises for elderly individuals living in long-term institutionalized environments, and UTIs account for “over a third of all nursing home-associated infections.

Why senior women may develop a UTI

When women begin menopause, their estrogen levels begin to fall. This causes the vaginal flora and lactobacilli to diminish. When this happens, the vaginal pH rises and can create an environment in which uropathogens can accumulate and result in a UTI.  

What are some of the signs that an elderly person has a UTI?

Most of the initial signs to look out for in older patients are typical UTI symptoms:

  • Burning sensation during urination
  • Frequent need to urinate
  • Urgency
  • Discomfort in the area between the belly button and pubic bone
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Chills and constipation

However, nursing home residents can be difficult to diagnose due to confusion or cognitive decline, which makes it harder for them to describe their symptoms or communicate how they feel. And in many of nursing home cases, it can be difficult to tell whether the symptoms are stemming from a UTI or from other types of infections or medical problems.

UTI prevention and management

Some suggestions to help prevent getting a UTI:

  • Don’t rely on cranberry juice. Cranberries have been used for many years as a folk remedy to help with UTI pain, but there is no proven benefit to consuming cranberry juice or capsules for preventing or treating a UTI. Instead, ask your doctor about antibiotics.
  • Use the bathroom after intercourse: During intercourse, it can be easier for bacteria to enter the urethra and cause a UTI. Emptying the bladder afterwards can help to flush out any unwanted bacteria and prevent UTI’s.
  • Don’t hold your bladder: Holding your bladder can cause a buildup of infectious bacteria. It is important to release the bladder regularly and completely.
  • Try probiotics: Since a UTI is a buildup of unwanted bacteria in the urethra, research suggests taking probiotics may potentially promote “good” bacteria in their place. Ask your health care provider about whether a probiotic supplement would help.
  • Catheter monitoring: Patients who have urinary catheters are at risk of acquiring a UTI in the bladder or kidneys. Catheters need to be used in accordance with best infection control practices.

If you or your loved one experience UTI symptoms, it is very important to visit your healthcare provider right away. Letting a UTI linger without proper medical diagnosis or treatment can result in kidney damage or more. If diagnosed with a UTI, you may be prescribed medication to relieve the pain and resolve the issue.

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Providence St. Joseph Health offers resources for seniors to address their needs and help them preserve their independence. Providence ElderPlace (PACE) provides a wide range of health care and social services for seniors in Washington and Oregon. The Center for Optimal Aging is an outpatient program serving older adults in the greater Los Angeles Area at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center San Pedro. Optimal Aging from Providence operates in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington Counties in Oregon, connecting seniors with transportation resources and trusted service providers. Learn more about Optimal Aging from Providence and request a free consultation.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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