The first line of defense against these troubling and pervasive bacterial infections is you, then your primary care doctor, then a urologic specialist like me.
I understand how alarming it can be when the first symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI) appear. The frequent and painful urge to urinate, an achy abdomen, pain during urination and an unsightly color in the toilet bowl can be petrifying. It may even have you cringing as the phrase “Not again,” crosses your lips.
I see about three patients every day with UTIs, mostly women, who are more susceptible to them than men. I am more than happy to help anyone out of a bothersome UTI, or one that is only mildly annoying. But many of my UTI patients don’t need to be my UTI patients.
To help you through your hour of need, or rather, to avoid it all together, I’ve prepared some tips to help prevent UTIs. I’ll also share treatment options and insight into when to see your primary care doctor, and when to see me for a UTI. Some basics first.
Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract, typically through the urethra, the passage where urine is released from the body. After entering the urethra, troublesome bacteria begin to multiply and spread through the system that processes and removes urine from the body. These bacterial infections often occur within the lower urinary tract – the bladder and urethra. If left untreated in its early stages, the infection can spread to the ureters and kidneys.
A majority of UTIs are caused by E.coli (Escherichia coli), a type of bacteria commonly found in the digestive system, which breaks down and absorbs nutrients from your food and also expels solid waste from the body. Other bacterium like Klebsiella, Proteus mirabilis and Staphylococcus saprophyticus are also common culprits. The type of bacterial infection will influence how a doctor treats your UTI.
UTI’s account for more than 8.1 million healthcare visits in the United States each year. Despite how common they are, most UTIs do not require care and treatment from a urologist. Understanding how to prevent a UTI, their symptoms, what symptom severity means, and potential treatment options can help you make the right move in caring for it.
Where do you stand when it comes to UTI risk?
It’s normal for a woman to experience one or two urinary tract infections each year. Due to their anatomy, women are much more likely to develop a UTI than men. Women have shorter urethras than men, and a woman’s rectum is much closer to the urethra than a man’s, leaving a much shorter distance for E. coli bacteria from the digestive tract to travel. Additional risk factors for UTIs in women include:
- Sexual activity, new sexual partners
- Certain types of birth control such as diaphragms
- Diabetes or other diseases that suppress the immune system
- Urinary tract abnormalities or blockages (kidney stones)
- Being postmenopausal.
Urinary tract infections don’t always cause symptoms, or the symptoms may be so minor you might not notice them. The most common symptoms of UTIs are:
- Strong urge to urinate
- Frequently passing small amounts of urine
- Painful, burning sensation while urinating
- Pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis
- Urine that is cloudy, dark or bloody (may appear slightly pink or brown in color)
- Urine with a strong odor.
Once a urinary tract infection has spread to the kidneys it can cause irreversible damage. Go to an urgent care facility or emergency room if you have a UTI and are experiencing nausea, vomiting, fever and chills, or pain in your lower back or ribs.
Diagnosis and treatment
Urinary tract infections can typically be diagnosed in a short office visit involving urine analysis or culture to identify signs of infection. Doctors typically prescribe antibiotics to treat UTIs. The type and duration of treatment depends on the severity of the infection and where it has occurred in the urinary tract. Medication has to be taken for at least two to three days, but treatment can last as long as several weeks.
There’s power in prevention
There are some steps you can take to avoid the pain and discomfort a UTI can present. Since urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract, common sense says that the best way to avoid that is to prevent bacteria from entering the urinary tract, multiplying and spreading infection. You can do this by maintaining proper hygiene and making certain lifestyle and habit changes.
Drink more water
Many health professionals recommend drinking at least eight cups of water daily. Water is always a good idea. A recent study shows that increased water intake in women who only drink about six cups of water daily can prevent the occurrence of UTIs and reduce the need for antibiotics. Drinking more water dilutes urine, which decreases the concentration of bacteria and increases the frequency of urination, helping to flush your urinary system of bacteria.
Go cranberry crazy … or not
The efficacy of cranberry products in preventing and treating urinary tract infections has been researched very l, and the results are mixed. Some researchers believe the antioxidants in cranberries make it harder for bacteria to grow within the body, others believe that the increased fluid intake from cranberry juices works similarly to the flushing properties of water. As long as you are not allergic or taking blood thinning medications, consuming cranberries and cranberry products hasn’t proven to do any harm. If consuming 100% cranberry juice helps you to feel better, enjoy your cranberry juice.
Give probiotics a go
Not all bacteria are bad. Though research in the area is still evolving, we do know that naturally occurring bacteria can help the body fight infection. Probiotics, which occur naturally in the body, notably in the digestive tract, have been shown to help prevent UTIs. Probiotic supplements are readily available, and you can also get probiotics by drinking kombucha or Kefir, eating yogurt or other fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and tempeh.
Change those bathroom habits
With increased water intake comes an increased need to urinate. Holding urine for long periods of time exposes the body to the harmful bacteria that can cause a urinary tract infection. Voiding the bladder as needed helps eliminate that risk. Wiping from front to back can also decrease the risk of spreading bacteria from the rectum and vagina to the urethra.
Bedroom habits, too
Urinary tract infections are not sexually transmitted, but are a result of bacteria that builds up and is pushed into the urethra during intercourse. Urinating prior to and promptly after intercourse can help remove unwanted bacteria from the urinary tract. Be mindful that your birth control may also be contributing to the spread of bacteria: diaphragms or spermicidal agents can increase your risk of developing a UTI. Women can wash their genital area before and after intercourse to also reduce bacteria buildup, which leads me to our next order of business.
Be conscious of hygiene products
Feminine products and treatments such as douches, powders and deodorants should be avoided, as they can irritate the skin and cause bacteria growth in the pelvic area. Washing with mild, unscented soaps and rinsing thoroughly is more than sufficient.
Don’t DIY your UTI: When to see a doctor
If you’ve had a UTI in the past, you may be able to recognize the symptoms more easily and much earlier. If you’re concerned that you’re getting a UTI, you can start a course of treatment in the comfort of your own home. The rest should be left to a healthcare professional.
- Start drinking water immediately after noticing potential symptoms. This will help dilute the urine and flush out infection-causing bacteria.
- Urinate frequently. The constant, painful urge to urinate is a symptom, but increased water intake will also require you to urinate more. The more you urinate the more difficult it is for bacteria to build up in the bladder.
- Visit your doctor. While increasing the amount of water you’re drinking may stave off the infection and improve your symptoms, it cannot cure a UTI. Your primary care provider or local clinic can provide you with a diagnosis and medication. If needed, your doctor may then refer you to a urologist for specialty care.
There are a lot of steps you can take to prevent getting a urinary tract infection. Should those prove unsuccessful and you find yourself struggling with a bacterial infection in your renal system, it can likely be treated without a trip to your friendly neighborhood urologist, me.