What exactly are UTIs?
A UTI is a bacterial infection of the bladder. They occur when the bacteria E. coli gets lodged in the urethra, a tube that caries urine from the bladder to the vulva, and makes its way into the bladder. This causes the bladder to become inflamed, which results in pain and discomfort. If treated quickly, most UTIs are not harmful and have no lasting effects. However, untreated UTIs can spread and cause serious, and sometimes permanent kidney damage.
What causes UTIs?
Although men do occasionally get UTIs, they are far more common in women. This discrepancy has two primary causes. Firstly, the close proximity of the anus and urethra in women makes it easier for bacteria to make their way into the urinary tract. E. coli bacteria are normally found in the stomach, where they are not harmful, and are present in stool, so they can sometimes get displaced and enter the vagina. Secondly, the shortness of our urinary tracts compared to men’s make it much easier for bad bacteria to find their way into our bladders. If E. coli gets into the urethra, it can make its way up the tube and into the bladder, which is easier to do if it has to travel a shorter distance. Germs in the urethra tend to get washed out when we urinate, so the quicker a bacterium can get into the bladder the more likely it is to cause infection.
The chance of getting a UTI can be higher in pregnant women and in women with diabetes. Additionally, a woman’s chance of getting a UTI increases when she has frequent sex because bacteria can be displaced and pushed into the urethra most easily during sex. This is so true that UTIs have been nicknamed “honeymoon cystitis.”
What are the symptoms of a UTI?
Women with UTIs tend to experience substantial discomfort, especially during urination and intercourse. Typically, urination with a UTI causes pain or burning, and urine tends to be discolored and smelly. It is also common to have smelly discharge with a UTI. Additionally, most women experience the sensation of needing to pee frequently, but actually have very little urine. Some women also experience a feeling of incomplete urination. Having one or more of these symptoms is a good reason to go to your doctor to check for a UTI before the infection gets worse.
Untreated UTIs can spread to the kidneys and can cause kidney stones and may permanently damage the kidneys, so it is very important to catch UTIs early. Fever, nausea, and pain in the back below the ribs, where the kidneys are housed, are signs that the infection may have spread. This can be very dangerous, and requires immediate medical attention.
How are UTIs treated?
If you think that you have a UTI, your doctor will take a urine sample to diagnose the problem, and will prescribe antibiotics to kill the bacteria in your bladder. Most of the time, the symptoms of a UTI will lessen significantly within 24 hours of starting medication.
In cases with significant complications, like kidney stones or damage, surgery may be necessary to treat the symptoms. These cases are rare, but do occur if the UTI is not treated properly.
How can I prevent a UTI?
There is no surefire way to prevent a UTI, but there are several steps that can be taken to lower your chances of getting infected.
- Don’t hold your pee. To prevent UTIs, it is important to urinate frequently and regularly. Otherwise, the urethra won’t get washed out, which makes it more likely that bacteria will make it to your bladder. It is also good to pee right after sex to get rid of any bacteria that might have gotten pushed around.
- Stay hydrated. Hydration builds up the immune system, making it easier for the body to avoid infection on its own. For reasons that are not entirely clear, cranberry juice in particular has been linked to a lower frequency of bladder infections.
- Take showers instead of baths. Bubble baths are nice every once in a while, but taking them too often can actually lead to UTIs because it allows the bacteria to move around and get into places it shouldn’t be.
- Don’t douche. Douching is one of the worst things you can do for your vagina. It gets rid of the good bacteria and can push in the bad, making you much more prone to infection.
- Wear cotton. Cotton underwear are breathable, meaning that they don’t trap in moisture and heat around the vagina. This prevents bacteria from building up and moving into the vagina, where it can cause an infection.
- Wipe right. Wiping from back to front pushes bacteria into the vagina and increases the chances of getting a UTI. Always remember to wipe from front to back to avoid infections.
The most important thing with UTIs is quick treatment. Understanding your body in its normal state will help you spot any changes that could signal infection. If you feel that something isn’t right, be sure to see your doctor so that the problem is treated early, and symptoms don’t worsen. Don’t ignore what your body is telling you; early diagnosis and treatment, especially for something as benign as a UTI, will help you stay happy and healthy.