I was 18 – and on vacation with a friend – when I first experienced a urinary tract infection, or UTI for short. I felt a pressure in my abdomen. There was this unusual urgency to have to go to the bathroom, and frequently. And when I did, there was pain and burning. I didn’t understand what was wrong.
My friend’s mom brought me to the hospital, and that’s when I learned that it was a UTI – an infection that occurs when bacteria finds its way into the urinary system and travels up to the urethra and into the bladder. It is one of the most common bacterial infections women experience. In fact, women are more prone to UTIs than men because the urethra is shorter, reducing the distance bacteria travels.
Thirteen years later, I’ve had four more UTIs. I wanted to understand why I get them, and if there was anything I could do to prevent them from occurring. So when I found out that the Women’s Health Source – a free program at Jefferson dedicated to improving the quality of life for all women in our community – was offering a class on the very same subject, I jumped at the chance to learn more about these pesky infections.
“UTIs account for more than seven million physician visits, and more than one million hospital admissions annually,” says Cassie Snader, MSN, CRNP, of Jefferson’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the Division of Urogynecology, and the guest speaker of the Women’s Health Source event. “Most UTIs happen in the bladder but can also happen in the kidney and may require hospitalization for treatment if they get that severe.”
So why do they happen in the first place? The urinary tract is designed to help prevent any infections from occurring. But sometimes the body’s defense mechanisms can go wrong, and bacteria can get into the urethra and ascend to the bladder or kidneys, causing an infection.
I learned that the highest incidence of UTIs in women is ages 20 to 40 as well as in postmenopausal-aged women and women who are pregnant. If you’ve had one, you know that they’re very bothersome. “Up to 50 percent of women experience a UTI in their lifetime,” she notes.
Types of UTIs
UTIs are grouped into three categories:
- Uncomplicated: This type of urinary tract infection happens to women who are healthy and sexually active, and have a normally functioning genitourinary tract and intact defense mechanisms. They are caused by a bacterial infection – most often E. coli – but are easily treated with a short course of antibiotics.
- Complicated: Bacteria also cause these types of UTIs in women, but it tends to be more severe and more difficult to treat. The UTI is often the result of catheter use, bladder or kidney dysfunction, kidney stones, a kidney transplant, diabetes, pregnancy or sickle cell anemia. A longer course of intravenous antibiotics may be needed.
- Recurrent: Most women who have had an uncomplicated UTI have occasional recurrences. A recurrence is defined as two in 6 months or three or more UTIs in 1 year. They require finding the underlying cause of the infection to effectively treat the UTI. Prophylactic antibiotics suppression may be used for women who experience recurrent infections. “Twenty to 50 percent of women may develop a recurrent UTI,” according to Ms. Snader.
There are a number of ways to prevent UTIs. Ms. Snader offers these tips:
- Empty your bladder every 2 to 3 hours as well as before and after sex.
- Drink plenty of water and fluids.
- Avoid douches, powders and feminine washes.
- Wipe front to back.
- Wash adequately and gently. Unscented soap is best.
- Wear cotton underwear.
In terms of drinking cranberry juice to avoid UTIs – sorry, it won’t prevent or clear up your infection, according to a study conducted last year, which found no difference between cranberry juice and placebo on the rate of recurrent UTIs in college-aged women.
Making an Appointment
If you think you are experiencing a urinary tract infection, call 1-800-JEFF-NOW to schedule an appointment with a Jefferson physician or find the nearest emergency room.