A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria from the bowel enters and travels up the urethra. Women are fairly prone to urinary tract infections because of the shortness of their urethra and the close proximity of the urethra to the vagina and anus. Bacteria that live in this moist environment can spread to the urinary tract during sex or with the use of certain vaginal birth control methods.
Bacteria that travel up the urinary tract can affect the urinary organs beyond the urethra. The urethra and bladder are known as the lower urinary tract. If the bacteria reach the bladder, the woman may develop a bladder infection, also known as cystitis.
If the infection spreads to the upper urinary tract, it affects the ureters and kidneys as well. A kidney infection is known as pyelonephritis, and can be a serious medical condition.
Causes of Urinary Tract Infections
UTIs are not uncommon in women, especially women who are sexually active. Bacteria living near the vagina can spread to the urinary opening from direct contact with a penis, a finger, or sex toys. Some contraception methods, such as diaphragms or spermicides, have also been shown to increase the chances of getting a UTI. Women who are just starting to have sex, or who have increased the frequency of sex, are especially prone to UTIs.
Urinary tract infections can also strike when another medical condition is preventing the bladder from fully emptying. A kidney or bladder stone may be blocking the urinary tract, or the pathway of urine may have been narrowed or kinked. In some cases, an abnormality in the nerves or bladder muscles may result in bladder dysfunction.
If you believe you have a UTI, visit your gynecologist to get a diagnosis and discuss treatment options.
Symptoms of a Urinary Tract Infection
Even mild UTIs can present with uncomfortable symptoms.
- A strong and persistent urge to urinate. One of the most common signs of a UTI is the sensation of urgency. The urge to urinate can return just moments after emptying the bladder.
- This is a pain or stinging sensation while urinating.
- Aching in the pelvis, back, or sides of the abdomen.
- Change in the odor of the urine.
- Cloudy or bloody urine.
Severe UTIs – infections of the upper urinary tract including the ureters or kidneys – may cause these symptoms:
- Fever, chills
- Nausea or vomiting
- Back pains
There are many serious medical conditions that are associated with these symptoms. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, please call your doctor right away. If you do have a kidney infection, you will need to seek immediate treatment.
Risk Factors for UTIs
In addition to women who have recently increased their level sexual activity, certain types of women are more likely to contract a UTI, including women who:
- Are obese
- Had several vaginal births
- Have diabetes
- Have a personal history of UTIs
- Are post-menopause. Menopause occurs when a woman’s body decreases the production of estrogen, which can weaken the tissues surrounding the urethra and leave it vulnerable to infection.
Pregnant women can get UTIs as well. If you are pregnant and believe you have a UTI, seek medical help right away. A urinary tract infection could cause complications for your developing baby.
Diagnosing a Urinary Tract Infection
The test for a UTI is called a urinalysis. Your doctor will ask you to provide a urine sample, which will be examined in a laboratory. Your doctor may also order a culture of your urine sample, which can show the particular types of bacteria that are present.
Treating a Urinary Tract Infection
Most urinary tract infections can be treated quickly and easily with antibiotics, and fortunately, symptoms usually disappear within two days. When taking antibiotics, it’s important to take all of the doses prescribed, even if you are feeling better before you run out of your medication. Failing to take the entire prescription as recommended could result in a relapse of the infection.
Upper urinary tract infections that affect the kidneys are much more serious and usually require a stay in the hospital. Your antibiotics may be administered intravenously while medical professionals monitor your health.
Frequent Urinary Tract Infections
Having more than two UTIs in a year qualifies as a recurrent infection. Recurrent infections are usually associated with sexual habits, such as:
- Having sex at an early age
- Frequent intercourse
- Sex with a new partner
- Using spermicides or a diaphragm
If you have recurrent UTIs, talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your risk. You may need to switch your method of contraception or practice better hygiene before, during, and after sex. It may feel uncomfortable to talk to your health care provider about your sexual activity, but your gynecologist is a specialist in this area and is here to help you stay healthy.
Reducing Your Risk of Urinary Tract Infections
Doctors recommend several behaviors that you can try at home to decrease your risk of developing a UTI. Some helpful tips include:
- Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom to avoid the spread of bacteria.
- Empty your bladder at least once every three hours, and as soon as you feel the need.
- Empty your bladder before and after having sex.
- Wash your genitals and the skin surrounding your anus with soap and water, and avoid using douches, sprays, or powders.
- Wear cotton underwear.
- Stay well hydrated throughout the day to flush your system.
- Cranberry juice or cranberry pills may aid in preventing UTIs, but the effect is not well understood.
- Estrogen therapy can help prevent UTIs in women who are going through menopause.