Ask the Geriatrician: Urinary Tract Infections and Asymptomatic Bacteruria
Ask the Expert
Paul Mulhausen, MD
University of Iowa Carver School of Medicine
Q: What is a urinary tract infection (UTI) and what causes it?
A: A UTI is an infection in your urinary tract (UT). Your UT includes your kidneys, bladder, and the tubes that connect them. Your urinary tract makes urine and eliminates it from your body.
Most UTIs develop when bacteria – usually from your feces -- enter your bladder. This can cause a bladder infection. If the bacteria spread farther up through the urinary tract-- to your kidneys --they can cause a kidney infection. Kidney infections can sometimes cause serious illnesses that require treatment with antibiotics.
Q: As you get older are you more likely to have UTIs? Can anything else increase your risk of getting UTIs?
A: The odds of getting a UTI increase with age. In fact, UTIs are one of the most common health problems among older adults.
UTIs are also more common among people who:
- Don’t drink enough water or other clear, non-caffeinated liquids (caffeine can “dry you out”)
- Urinate infrequently
- Have diabetes
- Have kidney stones, an enlarged prostate gland, or other health problem that can block the flow of urine through your urinary tract.
Q: What symptoms do UTIs cause in older adults?
A: Symptoms of UTIs in older adults can include:
- Pain or burning when you urinate
- Pain on one side of your back, below your ribs (where your kidneys are)
- Feeling as though you have to urinate often, even though little urine comes out when you try
- Urine that smells bad or is cloudy
- Fever, nausea, or vomiting
You should let your healthcare provider know if you have any of these symptoms. He or she will discuss with you whether your symptoms might be caused by a UTI and decide how to treat it. A UTI is usually treated with antibiotics.
Q: What is “asymptomatic bacteriuria”?
A: Asymptomatic bacteriuria is when you have bacteria in your urinary tract but you don’t have the symptoms that usually go along with UTIs.
Older adults are more likely than young people to have asymptomatic bacteriuria. People who have a urinary catheter – a small tube that is inserted into the bladder to drain it— also have an increased risk of having asymptomatic bacteriuria.
Q: How is asymptomatic bacteriuria treated?
A: Most people with asymptomatic bacteriuria don’t need treatment because the bacteria don’t usually cause any harm.
The following people with asymptomatic bacteriuria, may run an increased risk of developing kidney infections:
- Older adults
- People who have had kidney transplants
- People with diabetes
- People with infected kidney stones
These people only need treatment if they actually have symptoms of a UTI. If symptoms are present, healthcare providers can analyze the urine and consider a “culture” to check for bacteria in the urinary tract. If the assessment indicates an infection, healthcare providers should prescribe an appropriate antibiotic.
Q: Why not regularly check all older people for bacteria in the urinary tract, and then treat the bacteria if it’s found? It seems that this wouldn’t hurt, and could help -- by killing the bacteria and preventing kidney infections.
A: Many studies have found that prescribing antibiotics for people without UTI symptoms offers no benefits in women or men. In fact, in these cases, antibiotics have been linked to other medical problems -- including yeast infections. Treating people with antibiotics when there is no evidence that they have a bacterial infection can also lead to “drug resistance”. Drug resistance is a process in which antibiotics that used to be effective lose their effectiveness.
The important thing for healthcare providers to do is carefully determine whether or not an older patient is truly symptom-free and has asymptomatic bacteriuria. If the patient has symptoms of a UTI, healthcare professionals should prescribe an antibiotic.
Q: Are there any circumstances in which a healthcare provider should give antibiotics to a patient who clearly has asymptomatic bacteriuria, and not a UTI?
A: Yes. If a patient is going to have urinary tract surgery, he or she should be treated with antibiotics beforehand, to prevent infections and complications that might develop during or soon after the surgery.
Updated: February 2013
Posted: February 2013