Actress Tanya Roberts Has Died of a Urinary Tract Infection. How Does a UTI Turn Fatal?

·4 min read
Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keith Hamshere - Getty Images

From Prevention

  • Actress Tanya Roberts, known for her roles in A View to Kill, Charlie’s Angels, and That ‘70s Show has died at 65.

  • Her publicist confirmed that her cause of death was from a urinary tract infection.

  • Doctors explain how to recognize a UTI, how it’s typically treated, and why it can turn deadly if gone unnoticed.

Following mixed reports, a publicist for Tanya Roberts confirmed Monday night that the actress died from a urinary tract infection.

“With a heavy heart I can confirm the death of Tanya Roberts last night on January 4, 2021 around 9:30 p.m. PT at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA,” her publicist, Mike Pingel, said in a statement posted to Roberts’ website. “Roberts’s cause of death was from a urinary tract infection which spread to her kidney, gallbladder, liver, and then blood stream.”

Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: ABC Photo Archives - Getty Images

Roberts collapsed on Christmas Eve after walking her dogs and was hospitalized. She tested negative for COVID-19 and was put on a ventilator due to her worsening condition.

The news is heartbreaking, and it’s understandable to have questions about how a urinary tract infection could turn deadly. Here’s what you need to know, according to doctors.

First, what is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection of any area of your urinary tract. Bladder infections are the most common type of UTI, but any part of the urinary tract can become infected, including the urethra, ureters, and kidneys, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Urinary tract infections are usually caused by bacteria that’s normally found in the bowel, the NIDDK says. While urination typically flushes out this bacteria before it reaches the bladder, sometimes your body can’t fight the bacteria and it causes an infection.

According to the NIDDK, symptoms of a bladder infection typically include:

  • a burning feeling when you pee

  • frequent or intense urges to pee, even when you have little urine to pass

If a UTI progresses to a kidney infection, it may cause additional symptoms, including:

  • chills

  • fever

  • pain in your back, side, or groin

  • nausea

  • vomiting

  • cloudy, dark, bloody, or foul-smelling urine

  • frequent, painful urination

How does a UTI become deadly?

UTIs are typically treated with a short course of antibiotics, but “a small proportion of these infections can become more serious, particularly in patients who have other medical problems, placing them at higher risk,” says Joshua Halpern, M.D., a urologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of urology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Some people may not experience normal symptoms of a UTI, though, causing them to delay care, says Jennifer Linehan, M.D., a urologist and associate professor of urologic oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “They don’t recognize that they’re starting to have a bladder infection and, if it goes untreated, it can progress to the kidneys,” she explains. “When it gets to the kidneys, they’ll start to have a fever and not feel well.”

From there, the infection can get into a person’s bloodstream and lead to a condition called bacteremia, i.e. the presence of bacteria in the blood, she says. It can also cause sepsis, a life-threatening complication in which the body launches an extreme response to an infection.

“Once the infection is in the bloodstream, it can go to any organ,” Dr. Linehan explains, and it’s essentially the body’s reaction to the infection that turns deadly. “The body is overwhelmed—sometimes a patient will start to get kidney and liver failure and the body shuts down.”

However, this is very rare in an otherwise healthy person, especially for a urinary tract infection to go undetected as it progresses, says David Kaufman, M.D., director of Central Park Urology, a division of Maiden Lane Medical. “Conceivably, you can have a urinary tract infection for a long time, not recognize it, and have it eventually spread to the kidneys,” he says. “But once it reaches the kidneys, you’ll be sick as a dog with fever and chills. People almost always catch it at that point.”

While experts stress that this kind of situation is rare, they note that it’s important to pay attention to the warning signs of a UTI. If you have any of the symptoms above, seek medical attention ASAP.

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