You’re minding your own business when suddenly you have to go… again. And it burns. A lot. You might be dealing with a urinary tract infection (UTI).
UTIs are, unfortunately, a fairly common occurrence for women, with about 50-60% of women experiencing at least one during their lifetime. The infection can involve any part of the urinary system, and symptoms typically include needing to urinate often, pain when urinating, and pain in the side or lower back.
In some cases, the infection can be asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms, but the bacteria is present in the urine. This is called asymptomatic bacteriuria, and it can remain in the urinary tract for a long time before flaring up into a more significant infection. Though unpleasant, UTIs can usually be cured with antibiotics. Here, we’ll cover everything you need to know about UTIs: what causes them, how to prevent them, and its treatment.
What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?
You might not think much about your urine, but it actually says a lot about your health. Urine is a byproduct of our filtration system, the kidneys. It is created when the kidneys remove waste products and excess water from your blood. Normally, urine moves through your urinary system without any contamination. However, bacteria can get into the urinary system from outside the body, causing problems like infection and inflammation. When this happens, it’s called a urinary tract infection, or UTI.
Causes of UTI
UTIs typically occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract through the urethra and begin to spread in the bladder. The urinary system is designed to keep out bacteria, but the defences sometimes fail. When that happens, bacteria may take hold and grow into a full-blown infection in the urinary tract. Here are the most common causes of UTIs.
Infection of the Bladder
This type of UTI is most commonly caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) and, sometimes, other bacteria. These bacteria are typically found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but can also be transmitted through other means. In women, the urethra is very close to the anus, which makes it easy for bacteria to travel from the anus to the urethra and into the bladder. Sexual intercourse can also lead to bladder infections, but you don’t have to be sexually active to develop one. All women are at risk of bladder infections because of their anatomy.
Infection of the Urethra
This UTI can happen when GI bacteria spreads from the anus to the urethra. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can also cause an infection of the urethra. STIs such as herpes, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, and mycoplasma can all lead to UTIs because they cause inflammation of the urethra. Women are particularly susceptible because their urethras are relatively close to the vagina.
If you don’t empty your bladder regularly, you’re at risk for UTIs. That’s because bacteria are more likely to sit and multiply in the bladder if it’s not emptied regularly. Drinking adequate amounts of water is key to preventing UTIs, as it helps to keep the bladder full and sends the signal to urinate more frequently. If you don’t drink enough water, bacteria that might already be present in the urinary system will be able to multiply, potentially leading to an infection.
Catheterisation is a medical procedure in which a tube is inserted into the urinary tract to allow drainage. While catheterisation is generally considered safe, it can occasionally lead to UTIs. This is because the insertion of the catheter can introduce bacteria from the skin into the urinary tract. Once these bacteria enter the urinary tract, they can multiply and cause an infection. Catheter-associated UTIs are most commonly seen in hospitalised patients or other medical conditions requiring long-term catheterisation.
UTIs are also common in postmenopausal women due to changes in hormone levels. During menopause, estrogen levels decline, which can lead to a condition called hypoestrogenism. This condition can thin the lining of the urethra and make it more susceptible to infection. In addition, declining estrogen levels can also lead to changes in urinary tract anatomy, further increasing the risk of UTI.
UTIs don’t always cause symptoms, but when they do, you may feel a strong urge to urinate often and pass small amounts of urine. Other symptoms may include burning sensations when urinating, cloudy or coloured urine, and strong-smelling urine. In women, there may also be pelvic pain around the pubic bone. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s essential to see a doctor to treat the infection promptly. Left untreated, a UTI can cause health complications.
UTI is one of the most common types of infection in the body, accounting for nearly 25% of all infections. The good news is that there are tips you can do to lower your risk of getting one.
Tip 1: Drink Plenty of Liquids
Drinking plenty of liquids, especially water helps dilute the urine, which means you’ll urinate more often. This gives bacteria less time to hang out and causes an infection.
Tip 2: Try Cranberry Juice
Some studies suggest that cranberry juice may help to prevent UTIs, although the verdict is not yet final. However, drinking cranberry juice is not likely to cause any harm, so it may be worth a try.
Tip 3: Wipe from Front to Back
When it comes to wiping, always go from front to back after using the restroom. This helps prevent bacteria from spreading from the anus to the vagina or urethra.
Tip 4: Urinate After Having Sex
Empty your bladder soon after sex. This helps to flush out any bacteria that might have entered the urethra during sexual activity. Make sure to drink a full glass of water afterwards to help flush out any bacteria that might have been left behind.
Tip 5: Avoid Irritating Feminine Products
Steer clear of feminine products that could irritate the urethra. These products can include deodorant sprays, douches, and powders. Using them in the genital area can irritate the urethra and make you more susceptible to UTIs.
Tip 6: Change Your Birth Control Method
Be mindful of the type of birth control you’re using. Diaphragms, unlubricated condoms, or condoms treated with spermicide can contribute to bacterial growth and increase your risk of developing a UTI. If you’re prone to UTIs, talk to your doctor about other birth control options that might be a better fit for you. Following these simple steps can help reduce your risk of getting a UTI.
Antibiotics are usually the first line of defence when treating urinary tract infections. The specific medication and length of treatment will depend on your overall health and the type of bacteria present in your urine. Some of the most common antibiotics used to treat simple UTIs include trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Bactrim DS), fosfomycin (Monurol), nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin, Macrobid, Furadantin), cephalexin, and ceftriaxone.
The group of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones isn’t commonly recommended for simple UTIs. These drugs include ciprofloxacin (Cipro), levofloxacin, and others. The risks of these drugs generally outweigh the benefits of treating uncomplicated UTIs. In cases of a complicated UTI or kidney infection, your healthcare provider might prescribe a fluoroquinolone medicine if there are no other treatment options. Often, UTI symptoms clear up within a few days of starting treatment, but you may need to continue antibiotics for a week or more. Take all the medicine as prescribed.
For an uncomplicated UTI that occurs when you’re otherwise healthy, your healthcare provider may recommend a shorter course of treatment. That may mean taking an antibiotic for one to three days. Whether a short course of treatment is enough to treat your infection depends on your symptoms and medical history. Your healthcare provider may also give you a pain reliever to take to ease burning while urinating. But pain usually goes away soon after starting an antibiotic.
Suppose you think you might have a UTI. In that case, you must see a healthcare provider immediately because untreated infections can lead to possible complications. Your healthcare provider will likely ask about your symptoms and medical history and perform a physical exam. They may also order a urine test called a urinalysis to detect suspicious cells or bacteria in your urine sample.
A positive urinalysis almost always indicates a UTI, though further testing may be necessary if symptoms don’t improve with antibiotics or if infections keep coming back. However, by proper treatment, UTIs most often can be cured and don’t cause serious problems. So, if you think you might have a UTI, don’t delay – just go see your healthcare provider.
Dr. Amna Raees Khan is a specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist. Visit @amnaraeesahmed on Instagram for more information.