The urologic infection that a source close to Bill Clinton says led to the former president's hospitalization is common in older individuals and can be serious, experts say.
But when treated in a timely manner, the prognosis for such cases is excellent.
Clinton, 75, was admitted Tuesday evening to a California hospital, where he received intravenous antibiotics and fluids, his doctors said in a statement, adding that Clinton was responding well to treatment.
A source close to Clinton told NBC News that his initial diagnosis was a urologic infection that morphed into a broader infection.
While little else was immediately revealed about Clinton's condition, including whether it originated in his urinary tract or elsewhere in the urinary system, experts who were not involved in his care said such spread of infection can be life-threatening without prompt medical attention.
"This is not uncommon. This is something we frequently treat in the emergency room, where somebody comes in with a urinary tract infection," NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres said Friday on the "TODAY" show. "Especially as they get older, their body is not able to contain that, so it moves from the urinary tract, from the bladder and the kidneys, into the bloodstream."
At that point, Torres said, a patient is at risk of sepsis — a dangerous overdrive of the immune system in response to an infection — or septic shock, when organs start to fail.
Doctors must keep a close eye on these patients to make sure the strong antibiotics they are treating them with are lowering their white blood cell counts, which would indicate the infection is getting under control, said Dr. Ash Tewari, a urologist and prostate cancer specialist at Mount Sinai in New York.
Doctors will also work to identify any underlying conditions that may have led to the infection in the first place: a blockage, a kidney stone, even diabetes, Tewari said. Sometimes, procedures are necessary to prevent future recurrences.
While urinary tract infections are common in young women, in young men, they are exceptionally rare. Later in life, men become more prone to them, the experts said, because the likelihood of developing an enlarged prostate increases with age — and that can interfere with the bladder's ability to fully empty.
“If you have difficulty with urinary symptoms with voiding, that can put you at increased risk,” said Dr. Edward Schaeffer, chair of urology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Preventing the problem
Staying hydrated or treating an enlarged prostate with appropriate medications can prevent infections from happening in the first place, the doctors said.
But if you do get sick, it is possible to identify and treat an infection before it requires hospitalization.
If there are any unusual discomforts — such as burning during urination, lower abdominal pain, increased urgency to urinate — it's wise to make an appointment with a urologist. Catching the infection early usually means a course of oral antibiotics can treat it.
But sometimes, patients do not have such obvious symptoms, said Dr. Roger Dmochowski, professor of urology, gynecology and surgery and associate surgeon in chief for Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Instead, fatigue and an overall malaise might be the only signs that something is amiss.
"If there is a symptom, don’t ignore it. Just get it checked."
"They have this global loss of energy and they feel terrible, and then you sort of back into the diagnosis when someone checks the urine sample," Dmochowski said, adding that as the U.S. population ages, more people are coming in with urologic infections.
Early intervention is the best way to guarantee a good outcome, Tewari said: "If there is a symptom, don’t ignore it. Just get it checked."