UTIs generally begin in the lower urinary tract. Pathogenic strains of E. coli bacteria enter into the opening of the urethra, traveling up into the bladder. This causes a typical urinary tract infection, cystitis, with the usual symptoms: pain on urination, frequent urination, lower abdominal tenderness, poor bladder control, and sometimes, a low grade fever. This often resolves itself. However, if they persist, recur, or travel up into the kidneys, more serious problems can result.
- Bladder damage due to cystitis. Recurrent or prolonged UTIs can actually damage deep tissues inside the bladder.
- UTIs can recur several weeks later, even after antibiotic treatment. The culprit may be the same bacterial strain or a different one.
- The infection can also relapse within two weeks of treatment. This is more common with pyelonephritis than with cystitis, but it sometimes indicates underlying problems like kidney stones, structural abnormalities, or chronic prostatitis.
- If the bacteria infection that causes cystitis travels up through the ureters into the kidneys, it can cause pyelonephritis to develop. This is a very serious infection that needs immediate treatment. The symptoms of pyelonephritis include flank pain, nausea and vomiting, and a high fever. It develops rapidly over the course of a few hours. If left untreated, bleeding and suppuration can occur in the kidneys. If pus collects in the kidneys, it can lead to pyelonephrosis, which can cause kidney failure and death.
Protecting Yourself Against UTIs
As we’ve mentioned, some people — mostly women — are more prone to UTIs than others. Some of the known risk factors for urinary tract infections include:
- Female anatomy. Females have a shorter urethra, making UTIs more likely to occur.
- Being sexually active. Sexually active women are more likely to develop UTIs than those who are not.
- A recent change in sexual partner. If you are sexually active with someone new, you may be at a higher risk of getting a UTI.
- Certain types of birth control. Diaphragms and spermicides may increase your UTI risk. If you’re using either of these–and are developing recurring UTIs–you may want to talk to your gynecologist about trying a different form of birth control
- After menopause, declining estrogen levels can make you more susceptible to UTIs.
- Diabetes mellitus. Diabetes and other diseases that impair your immune system can increase your risk of UTIs, as well as other infections.
- Urinary blockages. Kidney stones or an enlarged prostate can trap urine in your bladder and raise your risk of UTIs.
Many of these things aren’t really something that you can do much about, like having female urinary anatomy and being sexually active. However, there are still a few things that you can do, to prevent UTIs.
- Drink plenty of liquids. Drinking water dilutes your urine and causes you to urinate more frequently. The urine itself has antiseptic properties, and can flush out potentially harmful bacteria. Nurses are always busy at work, so it’s easy to forget to drink water.
- Wipe from front to back. The bacteria that cause UTIs — usually coli — originate in your intestines. Wiping from front to back prevents fecal bacteria from entering your vagina and urethra, where they can cause infections.
- Empty your bladder after intercourse. Sex spreads bacteria around, and urinating soon afterward flushes them out and prevents them from causing a UTI.
- Change your birth control method. Diaphragms and spermicidal agents can increase your risk of UTI.
UTIs Can Be Serious
UTIs can develop into pyelonephritis, and frequent recurring UTIs might be a sign of kidney stones or other problems. If you’re experiencing frequent urinary tract infections, it’s a good idea to talk to your GP about it. Even nurses can get infections, including UTIs.