Most of us have been there: You feel a sudden need to rush to the bathroom—and once seated, you feel a burning pain. Fifteen minutes later, you rush to the bathroom again, with the same result. Many of us recognize these symptoms as the start of a UTI (urinary tract infection). According to the Urology Care Foundation, if you’re one of 60% of women and 12% of men, you’ll have at least one UTI in your lifetime. A UTI occurs when bacteria enters your urethra and travels up to your bladder. UTIs cause more than 8.1 million visits to health care providers each year.
Women have a greater risk of developing a UTI than men, and many women endure repeated infections. Some experts rank your lifetime risk for women as high as 1 in 2.
UTIs can happen anywhere in your urinary tract and each type has a different name depending on where it is:
- Cystitis (bladder) – you may feel that you have to pee a lot or it may hurt when you do. You may have lower belly pain and cloudy or bloody urine
- Pyelonephritis (kidneys) – you can experience fever, chills, nausea, vomiting and pain in your upper back or side
- Urethritis (urethra) – you may experience discharge and burning when you pee
Symptoms of UTIs can include:
- A burning feeling when you pee
- A frequent or sudden urge to pee, even if you don’t pee very much
- Cloudy, dark or strong-smelling pee
- Feeling tired or shaky
- Fever or chills (this can indicate that an infection may have reached your kidneys)
- Pain or pressure in your lower back or abdomen
If you start to experience these symptoms, check with your health care provider. Antibiotics are the most common treatment for UTIs and the sooner you start them, the sooner you will feel better. Make sure you follow the entire course. Don’t stop taking them once you start to feel better or you’ll increase the chance that the infection will return.
UTIs are the main reason women are told to wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. Your urethra is close to the anus. Bacteria, such as E. coli, can sometimes get out of your anus and into your urethra. From there it travels up through your urinary tract and starts an infection. Women have shorter urethras than men, which makes it easier for bacteria to travel to the bladder. Sex can introduce bacteria into your urinary tract, as well, which is why some women talk about “honeymoon cystitis.”
Specific anatomical and health issues may make some women’s bodies more susceptible to UTIs. Diabetics tend to be more susceptible to UTIs because high blood sugar can lead to sugar in your urine and is a breeding ground for bacteria. If you have difficulty emptying your bladder, bacteria can hang around and lead to infection.
The shape of the urethra is important as well. If the opening of the urethra is not large enough, a doctor may need to perform a urethral dilation, a stretching of the urethral tube to ensure the urinary tract functions properly. I underwent this procedure when I was very young and again just a few weeks ago. I’d had many years with no UTIs at all, but after experiencing 3 in 8 weeks, the doctors said it was time to have it again. I feel great now.
Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to avoid UTIs:
Don’t wait to pee. When you need to go, go. And, don’t rush. Holding in urine and not draining your bladder fully can increase risk of UTIs. (Busy moms who just can’t get a moment may find themselves suffering from repeated UTIs.)
Wipe front to back, especially after a bowel movement, to keep bacteria from migrating to the urethra.
Clean up before sex and pee afterward. Washing before sex will help keep bacteria away from the urethra. Peeing afterwards will push out any bacteria that might have found its way in.
Avoid scented feminine products. Skip douches, sprays, scented powders and other scented hygiene products.
Consider changing your birth control. Some forms of birth control, like spermicidal foam and diaphragms, are known to increase UTI risk. Check with your doctor about alternatives.
Probiotics increase good gut bacteria and help flush out the urinary tract. Yogurt and fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles and kefir all have natural probiotics. A quick online search should help you find your favorites.
Cranberries? Lots of studies over the years have focused on cranberry juice, which contains A-type proanthocyanidins (PACs) that prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall. The studies have found mixed results. My doctor said drinking cranberry juice certainly doesn’t hurt, and it helps keep me hydrated and using the bathroom at regular intervals.
If you experience any UTI symptoms or feel achy, tired and feverish, talk to your doctor. If you’re pregnant and have UTI symptoms, don’t wait. UTIs during pregnancy can put both you and your baby at risk if not dealt with quickly.
Luckily, most UTIs don’t last long once treated. Stay hydrated and when you need to pee, go!