Bladder Infections: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments
Pain or burning while you're urinating can be incredibly uncomfortable and can be very worrying, too. If you've found yourself using the bathroom more often than usual or experiencing discomfort when you do, you might be suffering from a bladder infection. While bladder infections are not fun, they're fortunately easy to treat. Read up on these infections, so you know when to head to the doctor.
What Is a Bladder Infection?
Sometimes referred to by the name "cystitis," a bladder infection happens when bacteria travel from the urethra into the bladder. Most bladder infections are acute, which means that they only last a short period with appropriate treatment. If left untreated, bladder infections can become chronic, which means that they last a long time and can cause health complications including kidney infections, kidney disease, and sepsis.
Knowing the following terms will help you better understand bladder infections.
- Bladder: A sac in the body that collects urine for elimination.
- Urethra: The tube that carries urine out of the body.
- Urine culture: A type of test doctors conduct to detect the presence of harmful bacteria in the bladder.
- Urinary tract infection (UTI): Bladder infections are a type of urinary infection and are sometimes referred to simply as "UTIs."
Stages and Types of Bladder Infections
Bladder infections are a type of UTI. While different kinds of bacteria may cause them, there aren't different forms of bladder infections. Doctors merely diagnose anyone who has unhealthy bacteria growing in the bladder with cystitis.
Doctors don't identify different stages of bladder infections either. However, they do distinguish between acute and chronic bladder infections:
Acute bladder infections are a one-time occurrence. Individuals are said to have an acute bladder infection if they've had fewer than two positive urine cultures in a six-month period. Chronic bladder infections are recurring. If you've had two or more positive urine cultures during a six-month period, a doctor will likely diagnose you with chronic bladder infections.
Symptoms and Causes
While bladder infections may be uncomfortable, they're easy to spot thanks to their symptoms. The most common symptoms include:
- Burning or painful sensation during urination
- Urgent, frequent need to urinate
- Foul-smelling urine
- Cloudy or bloody urine
- Pain in the lower abdomen
Bladder infections are caused by the presence of unhealthy bacteria in the bladder. The bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) is responsible for many bladder infections. Bacteria usually enters the urethra on its own, but sexual intercourse can also cause bacteria to move into the urethra.
Prevention and Risks
Women develop bladder infections more often than men. This statistic is because the prostate, an organ that only men have, helps to filter bacteria from the urethra before it enters the bladder. Other common risk factors for bladder infections include:
- Engaging in regular sexual activity
- Using diaphragms or spermicidal foams
- Going through menopause
- Having urinary tract abnormalities
- Having kidney stones or other blockages in the urinary tract
- Using catheters
- Having a suppressed immune system
Bladder infections are relatively common, and not all bladder infections are preventable. However, there are some basic steps you can take to prevent infection, including:
- Drinking plenty of liquids
- Going to the bathroom shortly after sexual intercourse
- Avoiding douches, powders, and deodorant sprays that can irritate the urethra
- Wiping from front to back after going to the bathroom
- Avoiding diaphragms and unlubricated condoms
- Adding cranberry juice to your diet
Diagnosis and Tests
If you suspect you have a bladder infection, your doctor will evaluate your symptoms and ask you to give a urine sample. A lab will then analyze the urine sample to see if bacteria or red or white blood cells are present in your urine. Your doctor may also elect to do a urine culture, which helps them to determine the type of bacteria growing in your bladder.
If you suffer from chronic bladder infections or initial treatment isn't effective, your doctor may run further tests, including an MRI or CT scan to look for any abnormalities in your bladder and urinary tract. Some doctors also use a special device called a cystoscope to look inside your urethra and bladder.
Treatments, Procedures, and Medications
In most cases, your family physician or a general practitioner can treat a bladder infection. If you suffer from chronic bladder infections, your doctor may suggest that you see a urologist. Urologists specialize in urinary tract disorders and have a great deal of experience treating bladder infections.
If you have a chronic condition such as diabetes, your family physician will work with the rest of your care team to determine the best course of treatment for your bladder infection, since certain antibiotics may interact with your condition or other medical treatments you receive. Be sure to let your doctor know if you suffer from a chronic condition.
Most bladder infections are treated by using a three-day course of antibiotics. The particular antibiotic your doctor prescribes will be based upon your personal medical history, any allergies you may have, and other medications you take. For a more stubborn infection, a doctor may have you take antibiotics for 10 days. If you have a severe infection, you may be sent to the hospital to have a course of intravenous antibiotics.
If severe pain accompanies your bladder infection, your doctor may also prescribe a medication called phenazopyridine, which is used to soothe inflamed tissue and make it less painful to go to the bathroom. This medication is taken for a few days until antibiotics kick in.
Individuals who suffer from chronic bladder infections sometimes need to have surgery to get rid of the problem permanently. These procedures remove obstructions from the urinary tract. Vaginal estrogen therapy is also used in menopausal women who suffer from frequent infections due to vaginal dryness or changes in hormone levels.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
While it might seem counterintuitive, the most important thing you can do if you have a bladder infection is to drink plenty of water. Water helps your body flush out bacteria and toxins. Some doctors also recommend drinking cranberry juice or taking vitamin C supplements, since the acidity found in vitamin C and cranberry juice can help kill harmful bacteria while supporting overall urinary tract health.
Most doctors also recommend taking showers instead of baths while you have an infection, as bacteria is more likely to enter the urethra and flourish in a warm tub of water. Be sure to change your underwear regularly and use pads instead of tampons.
Eating a healthy diet can also help prevent bladder infections. Adding the following foods to your diet may also help:
- Cranberries and cranberry juice
- Dark chocolate
- Black tea
- Caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee
These foods all contain polyphenols, which are micronutrients that researchers believe help support gut health while prohibiting bacteria growth.
While bladder infections are inconvenient and uncomfortable, they are easy to treat and cause no long-term problems. If you think you're suffering from a bladder infection, go to the doctor. With appropriate help, you'll feel relief from your infection in just a few days.
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- Merck Manual: Bladder Infection
- Mayo Clinic: I'm a woman and I've had a chronic bladder infection for four years.
- National Health Service: Cystitis - Symptoms
- Patient: Cystitis (Urine Infection) in Women
- Mayo Clinic: Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Prevention: 5 Foods That Fight UTIs
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability
- Remedy's Health Communities: What Is a Urologist?