If you're a woman, your chance of getting a urinary tract infection, or UTI, is high; some experts rank your lifetime risk of getting one as high as 1 in 2 -- with many women having repeat infections, sometimes for years on end. Here's how to handle UTIs, whether you're experiencing your first or fifth infection, and how to make it less likely you'll get one in the first place.
What Causes UTIs in Women
UTIs are a key reason we're often told to wipe from front to back after using the bathroom. That's because the urethra -- the tube that transports urine from the bladder to the outside of the body -- is located close to the anus. Bacteria from the large intestine, such as E. coli, are in the perfect position to escape the anus and invade the urethra. From there, they can travel up to the bladder, and if the infection isn't treated, continue on to infect the kidneys. Women may be especially prone to UTIs because they have shorter urethras, which allow bacteria quick access to the bladder. Having sex can introduce bacteria into the urinary tract, too.
Symptoms of UTIs
To identify a UTI, keep an eye out for the following symptoms:
- A burning feeling when you urinate
- A frequent or intense urge to urinate, even though little comes out when you do
- Pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen
- Cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling urine
- Feeling tired or shaky
- Fever or chills (a sign the infection may have reached your kidneys)
Tests and Treatments for UTIs
If you suspect you have a urinary tract infection, head to the doctor. You'll be asked to give a urine sample, which will be tested for the presence of UTI-causing bacteria. The treatment? Antibiotics to kill the intruders. As always, be sure to finish off the prescribed cycle of medicine completely, even after you start to feel better. And drink lots of water to help flush the bacteria from your system. Your doctor may prescribe a medication to soothe the pain, and a heating pad may also be helpful.
Studies on the effectiveness of cranberry juice for preventing or treating UTIs have produced mixed results. The red berry contains a tannin that prevents E. coli bacteria - the most common cause of urinary tract infections - from sticking to the walls of the bladder, where they can cause infection. However, a 2012 review of 24 studies looking into the effectiveness of cranberry juice/extract on UTIs found they did not significantly reduce the incidence of UTIs.
About 1 in 5 women experience a second urinary tract infection, while some are plagued incessantly. In most cases, the culprit is a different type or strain of bacteria. But some types can invade the body's cells and form a community safe both from antibiotics and the immune system. A group of these renegades can travel out of the cells, and then re-invade, ultimately establishing a colony of antibiotic-resistant bacteria primed to attack again and again.
Some women are genetically predisposed to UTIs, while others have abnormalities in the structure of their urinary tract that make them more susceptible to infection. Women with diabetes may be at higher risk, as well, because their compromised immune systems make them less able to fight off infections like UTIs. Other conditions that increase risk include pregnancy, multiple sclerosis, and anything that affects urine flow, such as kidney stones, stroke, and spinal cord injury.
UTI Treatment Options
If you have 3 or more UTIs a year, ask your doctor to recommend a special treatment plan. Some treatment options include:
- Taking a low dose of an antibiotic over a longer period to help prevent repeat infections
- Taking a single dose of an antibiotic after sex, which is a common infection trigger
- Taking antibiotics for 1 or 2 days every time symptoms appear
- Using an at-home urine test kit when symptoms start
The tests, which are available without a prescription, can help you determine whether you need to call your doctor. If you're on antibiotics, you can test to see if they've cured the infection (although you still need to finish your prescription). Contact your doctor if the test is positive, or if your symptoms continue, despite a negative test result.
How to Prevent UTI Re-infection
You can prevent getting another UTI with the following tips:
- Empty your bladder frequently as soon as you feel the need to go; don't rush, and be sure you've emptied your bladder completely.
- Wipe from front to back.
- Drink lots of water.
- Choose showers over baths.
- Stay away from feminine hygiene sprays, scented douches, and scented bath products -- they'll only increase irritation.
- Cleanse your genital area before sex.
- Urinate after sex to flush away any bacteria that may have entered your urethra.
- If you use a diaphragm, unlubricated condoms, or spermicidal jelly for birth control, consider switching to another method. Diaphragms can increase bacteria growth, while unlubricated condoms and spermicides can cause irritation. All can make UTI symptoms more likely.
- Keep your genital area dry by wearing cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes. Avoid tight jeans and nylon underwear -- they can trap moisture, creating the perfect environment for bacteria growth.