Women are special: Some of the things that make us so are wonderful. Others, not so much. One of the relatively common unpleasantries associated with being female is urinary tract infections (UTIs.)
“We see urinary tract infections routinely—probably up to 10 a day,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lucas, St. Luke’s Urgent Care medical director. A vast majority of UTIs are diagnosed in women, and Lucas explains that’s “just because of the way our anatomy is set up.” Bacteria can enter the urethra and travel to the bladder where it can cause an irritating infection.
Prevention is “somewhat mechanical,” Lucas says. “When you go to the bathroom, always wipe front to back so that you’re not wiping any bacteria from your rectum forward to where the urethra is.” Lucas also recommends drinking plenty of water “and just going to the bathroom routinely. The longer urine sits in the bladder, the more likely it is to have bacteria grow.”
Popular lore has it that cranberry juice is a good foil for UTIs. However, this may or may not be particularly beneficial. “We do find that when people drink cranberry juice, they increase the acidity in their urine, and some people think that might make a urinary tract infection go away, but really the studies behind that haven’t been done,” says Dr. Alejandra Alvarez, an OB/GYN with SSM Medical Group at the Sunset Hills Women’s Center.
Cranberry juice may reduce the frequency and severity of UTIs. “Current research indicates that the cranberry-derived glycoprotein inhibits E. coli, which is bacteria that adhere to the urinary tract,” Alvarez explains. “So acidification of the urine could help to keep the UTI from happening, but what it doesn’t do is kill the actual bacteria that you already have.”
UTIs typically present with a strong, persistent urge to urinate and a burning sensation during urination. However, despite the urge, only a few drops of urine may be passed, and the urge returns almost immediately. Occasionally, blood appears in the urine, causing it to have a pink or brown color.
Over-the-counter medications are available to help ease discomfort, but make it impossible for a physician to get an accurate lab result from a urine test. Antibiotics are needed to kill the bacteria causing the infection. “Typically, once you start the antibiotics, within six to 12 hours you’re already feeling some relief,” Lucas says.
Prompt treatment is key to prevent the UTI from developing into a kidney infection, which can happen if bacteria multiply and migrate through the urinary tract to the kidneys. It can be dangerous, especially for the elderly or those with chronic diseases, because it can lead to a more diffuse infection.
Children also may develop UTIs, says Dr. Kate Lichtenberg, a Mercy Clinic family physician in Eureka. “Young girls may complain, It hurts when I go potty, and sometimes they’ll have a fever,” she says. Even if fever is the only symptom, Lichtenberg routinely orders a urine test. “It’s surprising how you’ll sometimes pick up a urinary tract infection, mostly in girls, just on the basis of a fever.”
In most cases, UTIs are uncomplicated and easy to treat, so don’t delay if symptoms occur. LN