Urinary Tract Infection

Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) affects millions of people each year. It is a common, but serious, health condition. As its name suggests, UTI is an infection (inflammation) of the urinary tract, caused by bacteria.

Bacteria can attach themselves to any part of the urinary system.

An infection that occurs in the urethra is known as urethritis; if the infection occurs in the bladder it is referred to as cystitis, and if it occurs in the kidneys it is known as pyelonephritis.

It affects women more than men (one in every five women develops UTI) and pregnant women are at greater risk of contracting this disease, because of changes in the urinary tract during pregnancy.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (in the United State of America), one in five women develops Urinary Tract Infection in her lifetime. It may also occur in infants, both boys and girls, who are born with abnormalities of the urinary tract. Infection of the urinary tract is, however, generally rare in boys and young men. Women are more prone to this disease because of their short urethra, compared to men, and its proximity to the anus.

What Causes UTI?

Urinary Tract Infection

Most infections are caused by one type of bacteria - Escherichia coli (E coli), which normally lives in the colon. An infection usually occurs when tiny organisms, usually bacteria from the digestive tract, cling to the opening of the urethra and begin to multiply.

Now, the very structure of the urinary system is designed to help ward off infections. Urine is meant to flow in one direction, without obstruction. It starts from the kidneys and leaves the body through the urethra. When the urinary system operates as it should, the flow of urine helps to wash bacteria out of the body. If for any reason, however, urine flows in the wrong direction or is in anyway obstructed, this can result in infections.

The following are some of the main contributors, which can affect the efficient functioning of the urinary tract and increases the chances of urinary tract infections:

  • Obstruction that interferes with the free flow of urine. Examples of common obstructions are kidney stones and enlarged prostate (in men). Any obstruction within the urinary tract can be very harmful. It can cause pressure to build up within the kidneys, which can cause kidney damage (leading to kidney failure). It can also cause stagnation of the urine, which can lead to infection.

  • Urine stagnation usually results from an obstruction within the urinary tract. Stagnation causes urine to remain within the urinary tract longer than it should. This increases the chances for bacteria in the urine to attach themselves to the urinary tract, causing infection.

  • Not drinking enough fluids can contribute to urinary tract infection. Fluids (especially water) play an important part in the production of urine. The lack of fluids reduces the volume of urine produced and makes the urine more concentrated. This increases the risk of kidney stones formation and other diseases, which can result in infections.

  • Diseases, such as kidney reflux, can cause urine to flow in the wrong direction. Rather than flowing from the kidneys to the ureters, urine flows backwards through the ureters and upwards into the kidneys. This not only puts pressure on the kidneys but any bacteria, which may have been in the backed-up urine can cause infection.

  • Pregnancy can increase the risk of UTI. As the fetus develops, it places pressure on the bladder and urethra, which can affect the free flow of urine. Also, hormones released during pregnancy (namely progesterone) can increase the risk of infections.

  • Menopausal women are at risk of contracting urinary tract infection, due to hormonal changes and dryness of the vagina.

  • Sexual intercourse and having multiple sex partners may also increase your chances of developing a Urinary Tract Infection. Because of the close proximity of the urethra to the vagina, bacteria can enter the urethra during sexual intercourse. To minimize the risk of developing UTI, women should empty their bladder after sexual intercourse.

  • Another cause is, holding urine in the bladder for long periods. If urine is held for long periods, the bladder stretches beyond its capacity, which weakens the bladder muscle. Over time, the bladder may not empty completely and some urine is left behind, which could result in multiplication of bacteria.

  • Another common cause of urinary tract infections is catheters placed in the bladder. Persons who need to use a catheter over an extended period of time are especially at risk of developing UTI. This may include patients who are critically ill or who are unconscious, patients with nervous system disorders who lose bladder control, or elderly persons. Bacteria can attach themselves to the catheter and cause infection.

  • Similarly, the use of stents, along with the underlying kidney problem, increases the chances of developing a urinary tract infection.

  • Other diseases that compromise the immune system (such as diabetes) can contribute to urinary tract infections. When the immune system is impaired it is unable to effectively destroy bacteria and fight off diseases, increasing the risk of all types of infections.

Symptoms of UTI

Symptoms vary and depend on the severity of the condition. Some people may experience little to no symptoms, while others may experience a number of different symptoms. Some common symptoms of UTI include:

  • Frequent urge to urinate;
  • Painful or burning sensation in the area of the bladder during urination;
  • Cloudy urine;
  • Back pain;
  • Fever;
  • Chills;
  • Nausea;
  • Vomiting, and
  • Headaches.

Treatments

Urinary Tract Infection can be diagnosed by a simple urine sample. It is typically treated with antibacterial drugs (antibiotics) and the patient usually begins to experience some relief within 2 to 3 days.

The length of treatment depends on the severity of the infection and how the patient responds to the antibacterial drug.

If the kidneys are infected, it may take several weeks of antibiotic treatment before the patient fully recovers. Severely ill patients may be hospitalized.

If after a few days a patient doesn't begin to experience relief, they should return to their doctor to decide whether further test may be necessary. Different medications might be required to deal with different strains of bacteria.

There are various drugs available to relieve the pain caused by urinary tract infection.

Apart from (or in addition to) the conventional treatments, there are some alternative treatments, which can be used to treat UTI. For instance, the use of cranberry juice to treat or prevent urinary tract infection is a quite common practice.

People who experience frequent recurrence of UTI can take steps to avoid infections. The two most basic steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing urinary tract infection are:

  1. Drink plenty of water every day to help cleanse the urinary tract.

  2. Urinate when you feel the need... don't resist the urge to urinate.

Other preventative actions that can be taken, by women especially, includes the following:

  • Wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria around the anus from entering the vagina or urethra.

  • Cleanse the genital area before and after sexual intercourse.

  • Avoid using feminine hygiene sprays and douches, which may irritate the urethra.

If, however, you experience some of the symptoms outlined above and you suspect that you may have developed a urinary tract infection, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible. The earlier this condition is treated, the less problematic it will be and the greater the chances of a speedy recovery.