The Link Between Urinary Tract Infections and Sepsis

At Windward, our home health team cares for clients who need skilled nursing care, whether it’s for a chronic condition or an acute illness, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI). November is Bladder Health Awareness Month, so we want to share some information about UTIs and their potential complications in older adults.

UTIs happen to both men and women, although they are more common in women. As we get older, the bladder changes. The elastic bladder tissue may toughen and become less stretchy. The bladder wall and pelvic floor muscles may weaken. These changes can lead to urinary tract infections, which happen in the bladder (the most common), the kidney, and the urethra.

Sick senior woman sitting at home in her chair and holding her stomach. She is in pain.

Risk factors for UTIs

Several physical and lifestyle factors can affect bladder health and contribute to UTIs. Some of the most common include:

  • Incontinence. Incontinence makes it difficult to maintain good hygiene, which might create conditions where bacteria could flourish.
  • Low physical activity. Physical activity can help prevent bladder problems, as well as constipation, which can also contribute to UTIs.
  • Using a catheter to urinate. A catheter is a tube placed in the urethra and bladder to help
    empty the bladder. The catheter can make a direct path for bacteria to reach the bladder.
  • Smoking. Bladder problems are more common among people who smoke. Smoking can also increase the risk for bladder cancer.

Quick treatment can prevent sepsis

It’s  critical to detect and treat UTIs as quickly as possible before they progress or develop into sepsis, which the Sepsis Alliance calls a medical emergency, “like strokes or heart attacks.” What should you watch for? An older adult with a UTI is more likely to be tired, shaky, and weak and have muscle aches and abdominal pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • Cloudy, bloody, or foul-smelling urine
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Strong and frequent need to urinate, even right after emptying the bladder
  • A mild fever below 101°F in some people

In some elderly people, including those living with dementia, mental changes and confusion may be the only signs of a UTI. That may mean the symptoms go unnoticed and the condition worsens.

UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics and rest, and the patient will be encouraged to drink plenty of fluids. If diagnosis and treatment are delayed, or if the patient does not take their medicine as prescribed, a UTI can spread to the kidneys, or the patient may develop sepsis, where the infection spreads through the blood, affecting the patient’s organs. “People shouldn’t die from a UTI,” notes an article from the Sepsis Alliance, “but if sepsis begins to take over and develops to severe sepsis and then to septic shock, this is exactly what can happen.”

The bottom line is that family members should be alert to any change in their loved one’s health and behavior, and follow up with a healthcare provider or their Windward Home Health RN case manager. Our home health team has the training and expertise to recognize the signs of illness and address them immediately.