By the time you start to notice a burning sensation during urination, it’s usually too late to hope that stocking up on cranberry juice will do the trick. When foreign bacteria make their way into the urinary tract (the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys), a UTI, or urinary tract infection, is the result.
Most often, these invaders are fecal bacteria like E. coli that find their way back into the body, and so most UTIs affect the lower parts of the urinary tract, especially the urethra and bladder. But if no treatment is sought, even the mildest UTI can travel upward and eventually cause a serious kidney infection.
Although poor bathroom hygiene can be a source of UTIs, there are other causes as well. Many women experience UTIs following sexual intercourse, as the penetration can introduce bacteria to the genitals.
The symptoms of a UTI vary based on how severe the infection is as well as how much of the urinary tract is involved. In addition to painful urination, patients may develop a fever, or notice something unusual about their urine: cloudiness, a foul odor, or even the presence of blood. Lower abdominal pain or cramping may also be present, and a patient may find that her bladder never feels truly empty.
Women should be most watchful for these symptoms, as they are more susceptible to UTIs than men, most likely because of the shorter length of the female genitourinary tract. Engaging in sexual intercourse also increases the risk of a UTI, as does receiving a urinary catheter because of bladder incontinence or surgical anesthesia. Conditions related to a higher amount of sugar in the bloodstream and urine (such as diabetes and pregnancy) can also increase the chances of developing a UTI, because that sugar can serve as a food source for the invading bacteria.
Just as there are risk factors for UTIs, there are also a number of things you can do to ward off such an infection. Staying well-hydrated is an important factor, as is avoiding smoking. Urinating shortly after sexual intercourse can help to wash any bacteria back out of the body; and wiping front-to-back when using the toilet can also keep fecal bacteria from finding their way into the urinary tract.
If you visit your doctor for a suspected UTI, the lab will confirm the presence of bacteria with a urine sample. A quick test with a “dipstick” can check the levels nitrite in your urine: this substance is produced by bacteria, and so a positive test indicates an infection.
The lab may also examine your urine under a microscope, to see whether there is an abnormally large number of infection-fighting white blood cells present. Finally, if there are bacteria in the urine, the lab can try to grow them in culture in order to identify what they are (E. coli, staphylococcus, chlamydia, or other UTI-causing strains). Identifying the particular bacteria involved can help the doctor to target an antibiotic that is best suited to fighting the infection.
Antibiotics are most often prescribed to treat UTIs, and a course may last for as little as few days to as long as a few weeks. Even if you feel better, it’s important to finish the entire prescription – stopping an antibiotic regimen too early can contribute to antibiotic resistance, which makes the next UTI that much harder to treat successfully.
During recovery, drink plenty of water to rehydrate. You can try cranberry juice, too, in combination with an antibiotic regime – the resulting acidity may make it difficult for bacteria to continue thriving in your urine. Treatment of symptoms can help as well: heating pads and over-the-counter medication to relieve pain and reduce fever.
Recovery is the perfect time to start being mindful of the health and hygiene practices that can help prevent a UTI, too. Recurrence of UTIs is a common complaint, but small lifestyle changes can help to prevent this from becoming a problem.