I find that I’m running to the bathroom — that I just have to go! Is this a bladder infection? Or is a UTI? How can you tell?
Most people use the terms bladder infection, cystitis (infection in the bladder), or UTI (urinary tract infection) interchangeably, but to be precise, a bladder infection is a particular type of UTI, one that involves the bladder. Bladder infections are caused when bacteria travel up the urethra into the bladder, where they multiply and overwhelm the body’s natural immune system.
The most common symptoms of a UTI are pain with urination (burning or stinging as the urine passes through the urethra), frequent urination of small amounts, and intense urgency to urinate. Blood may also be seen in the urine or on the toilet paper after wiping. While these complaints are common, they don’t have to be present for a person to have a UTI — in some cases there are no symptoms at all.
Bladder infections are usually caused by bacteria found normally in the intestine. Since the urethra, vagina and rectum are close to each other, contamination is easy and some women are prone to bladder infections because of their anatomy, or because of poor hygiene.
Bladder infections are often linked to sexual activity. Irritation of the urethra, from vigorous sex or from using a diaphragm, can increase the risk of infections; emptying your bladder before and after intercourse can help lower that risk. Infections frequently occur with a new partner, after a period of abstinence, or after the first sexual encounter — hence the name “honeymoon cystitis.” Infections also occur around menopause, and perimenopause, when the urethral tissues are thinner and more susceptible to injury.
The diagnosis of a UTI is usually confirmed with a urinalysis, a microscopic examination of the urine to look for bacteria, white blood cells and blood. Urine cultures are helpful in cases of frequent or recurrent UTIs, when an infection is difficult to treat, and in pregnancy. Fortunately, bladder infections are easily treated with antibiotics. Medications like pyridium (or over-the-counter products) are used to numb the tissues of the urinary tract and take away the stinging and burning. Certain anesthetics turn the urine a bright shade of “Koolaid” orange, so be prepared!
Keep in mind, these are only anesthetics; they numb the tissue but do not treat the infection. Untreated, some UTIs progress to pyelonephis, a kidney infection that warrants strong antibiotics and close observation. The classic symptoms of pyelonephritis are fever, chills and flank or back pain.
Drinking plenty of water is key when it comes to infections, as it dilutes the bacteria and will help ease the pain and urgency. Acidifying the urine can also help relieve symptoms — cranberry juice or orange juice works well, and so do dried cranberries.
Talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Bladder infections are very common, and by knowing what causes them, you’ll be able to prevent them in the future.