Urinary Tract Infections in Women
If you're a woman, there's a likely possibility you've already experienced or will experience a urinary tract infection (UTI). Approximately one in five women will deal with a UTI in her lifetime. If you've had it once, you will likely get one again. Learn more about UTIs in women here and get tips on recognizing the infection and relieving symptoms.
What is a urinary tract infection?
A UTI is caused when bacteria spread to the urinary tract and cause an infection that is uncomfortable and painful and a recurring problem for many. Usually, UTIs are driven by our own bacteria spreading to areas they shouldn't. A common example is E. coli, a bacteria which generally lives in the intestine. Others include Staphylococcus saprophyticus, frequently the infection source in younger women.
Women are at higher risk than men, which is mainly related to the female anatomy. The female urethra is relatively short and is also located near the anus, where bacteria can enter the urinary tract. In addition, estrogen hormone levels also decline in women as they age. This can cause the urinary tract walls to become thinner and drier. As a result, the protective mucosa, or mucous membrane, becomes less acidic, reducing its ability to fight infection. Your healthcare provider may recommend estrogen hormone therapy to prevent UTIs.
What are the typical urinary tract and bladder infection symptoms in women?
- Discomfort or burning sensation when urinating
- Needing to go to the washroom frequently
- A small amount of urine each time
- Traces of blood seen in the urine
- Urine that is dark, cloudy, or smells strong
- Feeling cold, but often not with an actual fever
- Sudden urinary incontinence
From lower a UTI to an upper UTI
UTIs commonly occur in the lower urinary tract, infecting the urethra and bladder. Highly virulent strains, if untreated, can spread further to the ureters and kidneys in the upper urinary tract. Symptoms of a kidney infection in women (and men) are significantly worse than those of a lower UTI and can include back pain, nausea, and fever. Kidney infections are potentially serious because they can cause kidney damage and even kidney failure if left untreated. Eventually, they can also lead to urosepsis, a bloodstream infection that requires intensive care.
Can symptoms from another condition be mistaken for a UTI?
The short answer is yes. Asymptomatic bacteriuria (also referred to as "friendly" bacteria in the urinary tract) is harmless and does not require antibiotic treatment like a UTI. However, these bacteria may cause smelly urine in some people and may even give a positive dipstick test (nitrites and/or leukocytes). However, this does not indicate an ongoing UTI if there are no other symptoms. Dehydration can also cause dark, cloudy urine that smells. Staying hydrated is essential!
How do you treat a urinary tract infection?
Most UTIs can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Typically, a urine test is done to determine which bacteria is causing the infection, and then a healthcare professional or pharmacist will decide which antibiotic to prescribe.
What can you do to relieve the symptoms?
- Stay hydrated. This will help flush bacteria from the bladder.
- Medication. Depending on your symptoms, look for something that will help with the pain, as well as the fever and inflammation.
- Heating Pad. Placing a heating pad on your lower back or abdomen can also help to relieve pain.
What can you do to prevent getting a UTI in the first place? Being proactive in protecting yourself from infection is smart! Here are a few sensible tips that might help prevent a UTI:
- Personal hygiene. Keeping the genital area clean helps to protect itself from infection.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water helps flush out bacteria
- Empty the bladder completely. Bacteria can grow in the remaining urine.
Other things to consider:
- When using the washroom, wiping from front to back is recommended.
- Avoid harsh soaps.
- When changing hygiene products, be sure to dry the skin. Bacteria grows more quickly in moist areas.
- Use breathable incontinence products.
- Urinate after being intimate.
- Take showers instead of baths - especially if you are UTI-prone.
- Topically applied vaginal estrogen can be used, sometimes in premenopausal women.
- Avoid condoms with spermicides.