Also called “bladder infections” or “cystitis,” Urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur when bacteria enter the bladder, usually through the urethra (urine tube) and begin to multiply. Urine contains fluids, salts and waste products but is sterile or free of bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing organisms. A UTI occurs when bacteria from another source, such as the nearby anus, gets into the urethra. The most common bacteria found to cause UTIs is Escherichia coli (E. coli).
UTIs are a common medical complaint. It is estimated that up to 40 percent of all women will have a UTI at some time in her life. Bladder infections are most common in young women with 10% of women getting an infection yearly.
E. coli normally lives harmlessly in the human intestinal tract but it can cause serious infections if it gets into the urinary tract. In women, the trip from the anus to the urethra is a short one. This is the reason why “wiping front to back” after using the toilet is helpful in preventing UTI. Other bacteria can cause UTI, but E. coli is the culprit about 90 percent of the time. An untreated UTI can move up to the kidneys and cause an even more serious infection, so prompt diagnosis and treatment is important. Sexually active women, pregnant women and older women all may be at increased risk for UTI.
The symptoms of UTI can include:
- Pain or burning with urination
- Lower abdominal pain or pressure
- The need to urinate frequently
- The urine may look cloudy or darker in color or it may appear bloody
However, some women, especially older women, may have very subtle or no symptoms. If you experience a sudden increase in the need to urinate often, or start to leak urine involuntarily — a condition called urinary incontinence — especially if this is a new problem, UTI could be the cause.
A fever, flank pain, nausea or vomiting accompanying any of these symptoms could signal that the infection has reached the kidneys, and you should seek immediate medical attention.
For an uncomplicated UTI, a three- to seven-day course of antibiotics will provide rapid relief. You may also receive a prescription for pyridium, a medication that eases bladder pain while the antibiotic is taking effect. For recurrent or more serious infections, treatment may be extended to 10 to 14 days.
For patients with four or more infections a year, the following measures may reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections:
- Cranberry juice or capsules
- A prolonged course (six months to a year) of low-dose antibiotics
- For post-menopausal women intravaginal application of topical estrogen cream