It is estimated that approximately 40% of women have had at least one urinary tract infection (UTI) at some time in their lives. A UTI is an infection in any part of the urinary system which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Infections of the lower urinary tract - the bladder and the urethra – are most common. Due to their anatomy, UTIs are much more common in women than men. Women are also more prone to recurrent UTIs with between 20% and 40% of women having more than one UTI during their lifetime.
UTIs occur when bacteria, often from the skin or rectum, enter the urethra and infect the urinary tract. An infection of the urethra is called urethritis; an infection of the bladder is called cystitis and an infection of the kidneys is called pyelonephritis.
Bladder infections are characterised by frequent, painful- or burning urination and lower belly discomfort. Kidney infections can be very serious, even requiring hospitalisation. Symptoms often include back pain and high fever.
Urinary tract infections are usually treated with antibiotics. Limited research suggests that natural remedies, such as cranberry juice and D-Mannose, may help prevent or treat UTIs.
What Causes Urinary Tract Infections?
UTIs are common infections that happen when bacteria, often from the skin or rectum, enter the urethra and infect the urinary tract. UTIs are more common in women because their urethras are shorter and closer to the anus. This makes it easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract.
Other factors that can increase the risk of UTIs include:
- A previous UTI
- Sexual activity
- Changes to the vaginal flora (mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria that live inside the vagina).
- Menopause, which can cause bacterial changes.
- Age (older adults and young children are more likely to get UTIs)
- Structural problems in the urinary tract
- Women with diabetes may be at higher risk because of their weakened immune systems
- Other conditions that can put you at risk include multiple sclerosis, kidney stones, a stroke, or spinal cord injury
- Urinary catheters
- Poor hygiene
What Are The Symptoms Of A UTI?
UTIs do not always cause symptoms. When they do, symptoms may include:
- A strong urge to urinate
- A burning feeling when urinating
- Urinating often, and passing small amounts of urine
- Urine that looks cloudy
- Blood in the urine (urine appears red, bright pink or cola-coloured)
- Strong-smelling urine
- Pelvic pain
Sometimes other illnesses, such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), have symptoms like UTIs.
How Are UTIs Diagnosed?
Your healthcare professional will determine if you have a UTI by asking about your symptoms, doing a physical exam or doing a urine test. A simple ‘dipstick’ urine test will indicate if you have an infection. Urine tests that are sent to the laboratory can test for specific UTI-causing bacteria. Laboratory tests can also indicate the best antibiotic choice to treat the UTI.
If you get frequent UTIs your doctor may refer you for an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI scan to look for any problems in your urinary tract. A specialist may do a cystoscopy to examine the inside of your urethra and bladder.
How Are UTIs Treated?
Treatment options will depend on whether a UTI is simple or complicated. Simple UTIs are infections that happen in healthy people with normal urinary tracts. Complicated UTIs happen in abnormal urinary tracts or when most antibiotics cannot treat the bacteria causing the infection. Most women have simple UTIs, while the UTIs in men are usually considered complicated. Women, especially after menopause, can also develop complicated or chronic UTIs.
A simple UTI is usually treated with a short course of antibiotics. A short, 3-day course will often treat most uncomplicated UTIs although some infections may need to be treated longer. It is important to drink plenty of liquids while recovering from a UTI.
If the UTI is complicated, a longer course of antibiotics is given. After the course is finished, you may need a urine culture to show that the UTI is completely gone. If your symptoms do not go away after antibiotics, you may need a longer or different course of antibiotics.
Postmenopausal women with recurrent UTIs might find using topical oestrogen hormone replacement beneficial. Topical oestrogen treatments include creams and tablets which are inserted into the vagina. Oestrogen regulates the pH (acidity) and consequently the bacterial balance of the vagina and surrounding tissues. Oestrogen therapy may help prevent UTIs by restoring the health and natural defences of the urogenital area.
Limited scientific research suggests that home remedies such as cranberry juice and D-Mannose may help prevent or treat UTIs by preventing bacteria from sticking to your bladder wall.
Can UTIs Be Prevented?
Not all urinary tract infections can be prevented but there are several things you can do to help prevent UTIs from developing, including:
- Urinate after sexual activity
- Drink plenty of water
- Take showers instead of baths
- Minimize douching, sprays, or powders in the genital area
- You should wipe from front to back after going to the toilet
Urinary tract infections are a common health issue, particularly among women, with 40% experiencing at least one in their lifetime. These infections can be uncomfortable, and in some cases, quite serious. However, they are often easily treated with antibiotics.
Several factors, such as sexual activity, changes in the vaginal flora, and pre-existing conditions, can increase the risk of developing a UTI.
Understanding the symptoms, causes, and available treatments is essential in managing UTIs effectively. Natural remedies like cranberry juice and D-Mannose might also help prevent these infections. While not all UTIs can be prevented, certain hygiene practices, including urinating after sexual activity, drinking plenty of water, taking showers instead of baths, and minimising the use of products in the genital area, can help reduce the risk.