Understanding Urinary Tract Infections

It’s the second most common bacterial infection, affecting nearly 1 in 3 women by the age of 24. Treatment works wonderfully… if you seek it in time.

Anyone can experience a urinary tract infection (UTI)—men, women, or children. But it’s women, far and away, who get the most UTIs and make the lion’s share of the annual 8.3 million doctor’s visits for the condition. The problem probably lies with the female anatomy.

Though it contains fluids, salts and waste products, urine is normally sterile and free of bacteria and viruses. Most UTI infections occur when bacteria from the digestive tract (E. coli) cling to the opening of the urethra— the tube that carries urine from the bladder to outside the body—and begin to multiply.

The ureters and bladder normally prevent urine from backing up toward the kidneys, and the flow of urine from the bladder helps wash bacteria out of the body. But still, infections occur.

An infection confined to the urethra is called urethritis. If the bacteria move up the urethra and establish themselves in the bladder, a bladder infection results (cystitis). If the infection isn’t treated promptly and effectively, the bacteria may travel up the ureters and cause a kidney infection (pyelonephritis), a serious condition.

One reason that women get more UTIs than men may be that a woman’s urethra is short, allowing bacteria quick access to the bladder.

Also, a woman’s urethral opening is near sources of bacteria from the anus and vagina. For many women, sexual intercourse seems to trigger an infection. Some studies also show that women who use a diaphragm are more likely to develop a UTI than women using other forms of birth control.

To determine whether you have a UTI, your doctor will test a sample of urine for pus and bacteria. This is most efficiently done with urinalysis, including diagnostic testing and microscopic analysis. The bacteria can then be grown in a culture and tested against different antibiotics to see which drug most effectively destroys it.

Often, a UTI can be cured with a few days of treatment if the infection is not complicated by an obstruction or other disorder.

Clearing up recurrences

If an infection doesn’t clear up with treatment, or you experience frequent UTIs, your doctor may order some tests to determine if your system is normal. These might include a renal sonogram, CT scan, or intravenous pyelogram (IVP), which gives x-ray images of the bladder, kidneys, and ureters; and cystoscopy to examine the interior of the bladder.

Actually, many women suffer from frequent UTIs, and urologists have developed several approaches to stave them off or cut them short. If you have frequent recurrences (three or more a year) talk to your doctor about low-dose long term antibiotic treatments or prophylactic doses of antibiotics to take after sexual intercourse or immediately after symptoms appear.

Men take note…

UTIs in men are often a result of an obstruction such as a urinary stone or enlarged prostate. In older men, they are frequently associated with acute bacterial prostatitis, which can have serious consequences if not treated urgently. If you think you have a UTI, consult your doctor.