Actress Tanya Roberts Died of a UTI—How Can That Happen?

It depends on how your body reacts to the infection.

Actress Tanya Roberts, who starred in the TV sitcom That '70s Show and the 1985 James Bond movie A View to Kill, died at age 65 on January 4, 2021, from a urinary tract infection (UTI) that spread to other parts of her body.

Roberts collapsed at home on Christmas Eve 2020 after walking her dogs. She was then taken to the hospital and put on a ventilator, but never recovered. Roberts' husband of 18 years, Lance O'Brien, said that he was unable to visit her in the hospital because of COVID-19 restrictions, but hospital staff made an exception when they realized the actress probably wouldn't survive. Roberts' cause of death was "a urinary tract infection which spread to her kidney, gallbladder, liver and then bloodstream."

Urinary tract infections can be irritating and painful, but they can also have severe complications if left untreated. Find out more about the symptoms, treatment, and complications of UTIs.

How Common Are UTIs and How Do They Happen?

A UTI can affect anyone but are more common in women. In their lifetime, approximately 40–60% of women will experience a UTI—with one in four women likely to experience a repeat infection.

"The urinary tract is the term used to include all the parts of the urinary system, which includes the kidneys, ureters (small tubes that connect the kidneys and the bladder), the urinary bladder, and the urethra (the tube that connects the bladder to the outside)," said Benjamin Brucker, MD, director of the Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery Program at NYU Langone Health.

Any one of these organs can become infected with a pathogen, in most cases a bacteria—the most common of which are the same bacteria that are found in our intestines or gastrointestinal tract. "The bacteria find themselves in the urinary tract and cause inflammation as your body starts to react to the infection," Dr. Brucker explained. "In most cases, when we talk about a UTI we are talking about an infection of the bladder or a condition called acute bacterial cystitis. This is what classically causes burning with urination (dysuria), frequency, and urgency of urination."

What Happens When the Infection Spreads?

When caught early, a UTI is normally easy to treat (with antibiotics if it's a bacterial infection, or antifungal meds if it's a fungal infection). If a healthcare provider suspects that the infection has spread, they may send the patient for additional tests, such as blood tests, kidney scans, or an ultrasound.

In some cases, the immune system can have a very strong reaction to an infection. This is known as sepsis, and it usually manifests with:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Extreme pain or discomfort
  • Confusion
  • Fast heart rate
  • Shortness of breath

"If the infection that causes sepsis starts in the urinary tract, we often call this urosepsis," Dr. Brucker explained. Urosepsis follows cardiovascular disease as a leading cause of death for intensive care unit patients.

"This means what might have started in the urinary tract is now having an effect all over the body," Dr. Brucker said. "When the bacteria spread to other parts of the body during urosepsis, the bacteria growing in the urinary tract can be found in the bloodstream. As this bacteria travels through the blood and body, the body's inflammatory response, as well as the toxins that the bacteria can release, leads to the dysfunction of our vital organs. When these organs start to fail, this is what ultimately can lead to a patient's demise."

What's the Likelihood That a UTI Could Lead To Death?

While it is possible for a UTI to result in sepsis and become fatal, it's not common. "Death is not the normal outcome from something like cystitis or an uncomplicated bladder infection," Dr. Brucker said. In rare cases, bacteria that get into the urinary tract or urinary bladder will spread to the kidney or the bloodstream.

"This may relate to patient factors, such as genetics and other medical conditions, as well as the type and strain of bacteria," Dr. Brucker said. Some patients, like the elderly or those with urinary system blockages like kidney stones, are more likely to develop sepsis.

What To Do if You Suspect You Have a UTI

You should seek medical care if you believe you may have a UTI. "Simple urine testing may give the clinician an idea if an infection is present," Dr. Brucker said. Additionally, your healthcare provider may utilize your medical history and results from a physical examination to confirm the infection.

Immediate medical attention is necessary if you experience severe back pain (near your ribs) or lower abdominal pain accompanied by vomiting and nausea. Dr. Brucker also added that you should be aware of other specific symptoms: "If systemic signs exist, like fever and chills or a fast heartbeat (i.e. not just the burning with urination), this may become more urgent. These signs often indicate the start of sepsis, and prompt medical treatment becomes more critical."

A Quick Review

Although not common, urinary tract infections can spread throughout the body and lead to sepsis. If you have symptoms of a UTI, it is important to consult your healthcare provider for treatment as soon as possible to prevent complications from occurring.

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  1. Thirty Mile Zone. Bond girl & 'That '70s Show' star Tanya Roberts dead at 65.

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition & facts of bladder infection in adults.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Urinary tract infection.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is sepsis?

  5. Guliciuc M, Maier AC, Maier IM, et al. The urosepsis—a literature review. Medicina. 2021;57(9):872. doi:10.3390/medicina57090872

  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diagnosis of bladder infection in adults.

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of bladder infection in adults.

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