In older people with dementia, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can cause sudden behavior changes rather than the common physical symptoms. Knowing the signs of UTIs in older people can help your loved one get treated early, before the infection leads to serious health problems.

What Are UTIs?

urinary tract infection happens when germs get into the urethra and travel up into the bladder and kidneys. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly four times as many women get UTIs as men. Among the reasons, women have shorter urethras, making it easier for bacteria to travel to the bladder.

Having diabetes, kidney problems or a weakened immune system also puts people at risk for UTIs. And women who have gone through menopause face a higher risk because they lack estrogen, which helps defend against the growth of bacteria in the urethra.

Physicians typically diagnose a UTI through one of these methods:

  • Urine test
  • Ultrasound exam
  • X-rays
  • CAT scan

Antibiotics are the standard course of treatment for a urinary tract infection. If symptoms persist, a specialist may perform additional tests to determine the underlying cause.

How UTIs Affect People With Dementia

When younger people get a urinary tract infection, they will experience distinct physical symptoms. Most commonly, painful urination, an increased need to urinate, lower abdominal pain, back pain on one side, fever and chills.

But those same symptoms may not be present for an older adult. Because our immune system changes as we get older, it responds differently to the infection. Instead of pain symptoms, seniors with a UTI may show increased signs of confusion, agitation or withdrawal.

For older adults who have dementia, these behavioral changes may come across as part of that condition or signs of advanced aging. If the underlying UTI goes unrecognized and untreated for too long, it can spread to the bloodstream and become life-threatening.

Are UTIs a Sign of Dementia?

Urinary tract infections can exacerbate dementia symptoms, but a UTI does not necessarily signal dementia or Alzheimer’s.

As the Alzheimer’s Society explains, UTIs can cause distressing behavior changes for a person with Alzheimer’s. These changes, referred to as delirium, can develop in as little as one to two days. Symptoms of delirium can range from agitation and restlessness to hallucinations or delusions.

Further, UTIs can speed up the progression of dementia, making it crucial for caregivers to understand how to recognize and limit risks for UTIs in seniors.

How to Prevent UTIs in Seniors With Dementia

To help your senior loved one minimize risks for a urinary tract infection, follow these precautions:

  • Monitor fluid intake, encouraging the senior to have six to eight glasses of water a day
  • Prompt the senior to use the bathroom several times a day, approximately every two to three hours
  • Ensure that the senior maintains good hygiene, including daily showers

Most importantly, notice behavior changes. Sudden falls, confusion or an onset of incontinence may warn of a possible UTI. Contact your loved one’s physician for guidance or a check-up.

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