Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are ten times more common in women than in men. In fact, one in every four adult women will have a urinary tract infection at some time in her life. UTIs are particularly prevalent in elderly women, although they can affect females in any age group, even young girls. Women tend to be more prone to these infections than men because of the differences in the structure of the male and female urinary tract.
The most common symptom of a UTI is pain or a burning sensation during urination. While UTIs are distressing and uncomfortable, they are easily cured and rarely have lasting complications in healthy women. However, if they are left untreated, UTIs can lead to potentially life-threatening problems. Early detection and treatment are essential to prevent a serious health risk.
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What Causes a Urinary Tract Infection?
The role of the urinary system is to help your body eliminate waste products in the form of urine. Your urinary tract comprises the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. All of these elements work in harmony to produce, store and eliminate urine. The
urinary process begins with the kidneys, which filter and remove waste products from your bloodstream. These waste products become urine, which flows from the kidneys through small tubes called the ureters into the bladder. Your bladder serves as a storage tank, collecting the urine until it can be eliminated. During urination, muscles in your bladder push the urine out through the urethra, which has an opening on the outside of your body to discharge this fluid waste.
Normally, the urine that flows through the urinary tract system is sterile, which means that it does not contain bacteria. Most UTIs begin when bacteria enter the urethra and travel upward through the urinary tract, producing inflammation and irritation. Over 80 percent of all UTIs are caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, which migrate into the urinary tract from the rectum or the vagina. On rare occasions, bacteria may enter the urinary tract through the bloodstream. When this happens, the infection begins in the kidneys and travels downward to the other organisms.
The differences between the urinary tract of men and women are primarily associated with the urethra. In women, the opening of the urethra is very close to the opening of the rectum or anus. The rectum contains fecal matter, a waste product of the digestive tract. Because of the close proximity of these two openings, bacteria can be easily transferred from the rectum into the urinary tract, causing infection. The female urethra is also considerably shorter than the male urethra, and this allows the bacteria to reach the bladder much more easily. The final difference lies in the fact that the female urethra is purely a urinary duct, whereas the male urethra also carries semen, giving it both a urinary and a reproductive function. It’s thought that the male prostate gland secretes a bacteria-killing fluid into the urethra, to protect the semen as it travels through this multi-functional passageway. This fluid may help prevent men from contracting UTIs.
The most common type of UTI is cystitis, which is an infection of the bladder. When cystitis occurs, it may be accompanied by an inflammation of the urethra. Sexually transmitted diseases, such as herpes, chlamydia and gonorrhea, often cause urethritis in both men and women. If the infection is left untreated, bacteria will travel further into the urinary tract, resulting in an inflammation of the ureters. In some cases, the infection may even attack the kidneys, a condition that can cause permanent kidney damage if not treated promptly.
Any woman who has suffered through a UTI will tell you that it is a very uncomfortable condition and can make you feel quite miserable. One of the most recognizable symptoms of a UTI is a burning sensation when you urinate. You will feel the burning either when you begin to urinate or when you are in the middle of urination. As your condition progresses, your urge to urinate may become stronger and more frequent. You may also notice that your urine has a strange odor and is cloudy, dark and even a little blood-tinged.
Sometimes a UTI may produce fever, chills and vomiting, or may cause pain in your back or in your lower abdominal area. It is very important that you do not ignore these symptoms because they may indicate the beginning of a kidney infection, a serious complication of a UTI. Young children and elderly women are particularly prone to developing kidney infections. Fortunately, most UTIs are uncomplicated and, if treated promptly, they are easily cured in just a few days.
Who’s at Risk?
Sexually active girls and women are most often at risk for developing a UTI. During intercourse, friction can push bacteria from the anus into the urethra, initiating the cycle of infection. Studies have shown that women who use a diaphragm plus a spermicide, or spermicide-coated condoms, are also quite prone to UTIs.
Pregnant women are at high risk for developing a UTI. Approximately 4 to 7 percent of pregnant women contract a urinary tract infection, often in the first trimester. Pregnancy produces hormonal changes that affect the urinary system, increasing the likelihood of infection. The urinary tract is often dislodged from its normal position by pressure from the growing fetus, which further increases susceptibility. If you are pregnant and develop a UTI, especially during your third trimester, you should be treated promptly to prevent premature delivery, high blood pressure and other serious complications.
Urinary tract infections are also a common concern for elderly women. As women approach menopause, estrogen levels begin to fall, leaving them prone to infections and irritations of the vagina and urinary tract. In rare cases, UTIs may be the result of anatomical problems, causing obstructions within the urinary tract.
Because the symptoms are so well defined, most doctors are able to identify a UTI fairly easily. To confirm the diagnosis, a urine test will usually be required. An uncontaminated sample of your urine is collected and tested for bacteria. Persistent UTIs may require further testing with ultrasound, x-ray, bladder examination or dye testing to identify any underlying conditions that may prevent a full recovery from the infection.