Bladder infections, a.k.a. cystitis or a urinary tract infection (UTI), are something most people, particularly women, will likely go through at least once.
They are painful and uncomfortable experiences that can go away after a few days, but at times they require medical intervention to fully get rid of them. If allowed to fester and linger, the infection can spread and cause more prominent and potentially long-lasting damage. Learn the signs and act early for the best outcomes.
What Causes a Bladder Infection?
Despite being filled with urine, the bladder is actually a rather sterile environment. Bacteria don’t normally enter from other parts of the body, and any that do slip through tend to get flushed out by urination before they can set up shop. However, certain bacteria—usually E. coli, but there are others—can manage to cling to the side of the bladder and resist being fully expelled. They then multiply, causing the infection.
Bacteria enter the bladder through one of two main routes. The first is from the bloodstream. Almost any bacterial infection that reaches the blood can end up causing a bladder infection. The second is through the urethra, where the bacteria will travel up the urinary tract and reach the bladder. This is why more women get UTIs and bladder infections than men—their urinary tracts are smaller so there’s less distance to cover. The opening to the urethra in women is also close to the anus and vagina, making it easier for bacteria to cross over. Sexual activities can also push bacteria further into the body for both women and men.
Symptoms of a Bladder Infection
There are three main symptoms of a bladder infection:
- The first is cloudy, sometimes dark urine. Bladder infections are the result of a buildup of bacteria, so much so that they can be visible (as the clouds) to the naked eye.
- The second is a burning or painful sensation when you urinate.
- The last sign is an increased need to urinate that doesn’t correspond with an increased fluid intake.
In more advanced cases, the bladder infection can cause pelvic pain even when not urinating. If the bacteria is exceptionally concentrated or there are white blood cells or pus mixed in, your urine can also give off a foul odor. There is also a chance that the bacteria can travel further along the urinary tract and infect the kidneys. This can result in a condition called pyelonephritis, where the kidneys swell and can lead to permanent damage.
Diagnosing a Bladder Infection
Your doctor uses two main tools when assessing if you have a bladder infection. The first is a urinalysis that looks at your urine to check for bacteria or other signs of an infection. The second is a procedure called a cystocopy. A camera on a thin tube is inserted up the urethra to get a look inside the bladder. Since bladder and kidney disorders can have similar symptoms or causes, your doctor may wish to check your kidneys as well. This is accomplished with an ultrasound or CT scan of the abdomen.
Treating a Bladder Infection
There are a few different remedies available for bladder infections. Some are medical, while others are lifestyle-oriented.
One of the most basic steps you can take to treat a bladder infection is to drink more water. This will serve two main purposes. The first is that it will increase the volume of your urine output, and thus the effectiveness of expelling bacteria. Some mild bladder infections can be dealt with purely through this method. The second reason is that it will dilute your urine. Urine is made up of water, various waste products, and acids from your body. The darker the urine, the more concentrated it is; it also increases your likelihood of experiencing pain or discomfort when it passes through. Diluting your urine can help mitigate the pain caused by the infection.
Try to avoid caffeinated drinks when you have a bladder infection. Caffeine will irritate the bladder under normal conditions and this will become exacerbated by the presence of an infection.
To mitigate the pain a bladder infection can cause, a heating pad or hot water bottle can help. As always when using these items, make sure there is a towel or similar barrier between your skin and the heat source to avoid getting burned. Low-to-moderate heat spread over the abdomen can help relieve the dull ache that sometimes occurs in bladder infections.
If your infection is persistent, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If this happens, it’s important to take the full course as instructed. Even if symptoms go away, continue taking the medication or else it may return.
Preventing a Bladder Infection
It is a good idea to refrain from resisting the urge to urinate for long. Prolonging the amount of time urine spends in the bladder increases the chance for bacteria to grow. Urination is also advisable after intercourse, since it will flush out any bacteria that were pushed in. Urinating regularly is both a strong preventative measure and an effective treatment.
Incidentally, there is no risk of your bladder “bursting” from holding it in, unless there is some sort of pre-existing damage or injury. Your body will void itself involuntarily before that happens.
Your clothing also plays a role in your risk of developing a bladder infection. Tight-fitting pants or underwear can trap moisture and create a breeding ground for bacteria. Wearing loose-hanging pants or skirts and cotton underwear will help promote air circulation and reduce bacteria growth. This is especially important on hot days or when you expect to be exerting sweating a lot.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Roth, E., “7 Best Remedies for Bladder Infections,” Healthline web site, August 22, 2013; http://www.healthline.com/health/bladder-infection-treatments#Overview1.
“Understanding Bladder Infections — the Basics,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/understanding-bladder-infections-basic-information, last accessed August 31, 2015.
“Understanding Bladder Infections — Diagnosis and Treatment,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/understanding-bladder-infections-diagnosis-and-treatment, last accessed August 31, 2015.