What is the urinary tract?
The complete urinary tract, or renal system, consists of the kidneys, ureters, the bladder and urethra.
The kidneys filter the blood at a rate of about half a cup a minute, removing waste products and excess water. These combine to become urine, which runs through the ureters to the bladder for storage. The bladder contains a series of nerves which send messages to the brain when it needs voiding.
When we get these messages and go the toilet, bladder muscles contract and the sphincter relaxes to allow urine to be released and exit the body through the urethra.
What is a UTI?
Technically, a UTI describes an infection of any part of the urinary tract, including:
- The urethra, medically known as urethritis
- The bladder, or cystitis
- The kidneys – also called Pyelonephritis
The infection is sequential, starting in the urethra and, if it doesn’t resolve, travels up to cause a bladder infection. If that’s also left untreated or goes unnoticed, it can then proceed to the kidneys. A kidney infection can cause permanent damage and leave you feeling extremely unwell, so if you suspect any infection book an appointment with your GP.
Informally, the term UTI is typically used to describe an infection of the urethra, so that will be the focus for this article.
What causes a UTI?
Although bacteria are present in the urethra, they’re in small numbers and regularly flushed out when urinating. When a more significant number take hold and begin to multiply rapidly, it becomes an infection.
The bacterium associated with around 80% of UTIs
is Escherichia coli, also known as E. coli. This bug is found in the digestive system and can be transferred from the anus to the urethra, causing an infection. The second most common bacterial cause of UTI is Staphylococcus Saprophyticus, which occurs on the skin and again, makes its way into the urethra.
Recent research published on the ScienceDaily website claims that the vaginal bacterium, Gardnerella vaginalis, can triggers E. coli already hiding in the bladder to cause another UTI. This discovery may go some way to further explain the association between sexual activity and UTIs. It may also be a clue as to why some women experience reoccurring infections.
Treatment of a UTI
You must make an appointment with your doctor. Although 25- 42% of uncomplicated UTIs will go away on their own, (you can read that article here), if left unmonitored, it can reach your kidneys, causing permanent damage and making you very unwell. Other conditions can add complication, so it’s always best to consult with a medical professional.
After discussing your UTI symptoms, the doctor will test a urine sample to determine the bacteria causing the infection and prescribe a course of oral antibiotics.
If you’re experiencing severe discomfort, ask your doctor about pain relief while the antibiotics kick in.
Make sure you keep drinking plenty of water to help flush out the infection and should notice an improvement within two or three days.
Treatment is very straight forward, but as often highlighted in the media, repeated use of antibiotics is less than ideal. For that reason, where you can, take steps to avoid contracting a UTI in the first place.
Risks of contracting a UTI
There are many reasons why women develop UTIs. Some of the risks can be mitigated, while others are just a part of gender. Risks include:
- Being female. Although anyone can develop a UTI, woman and girls are particularly prone. In fact, women are affected about 30 times more often than men, and roughly one in five women experiences a UTI in her lifetime (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica). The proximity of the anus and vagina to the urethra, and its short length are thought to explain this.
- Genetic predisposition. This can manifest in two ways; anatomically (the urethra’s angle and length as well as the proximity of its opening to the vagina and anus), and the immune system’s ability to fend off the bacteria quickly and efficiently.
- Menopause. The decline in oestrogen is thought to alter the composition of the urethra wall, making women over 50 more prone to UTIs.
- Sexual activity. The correlation is solid, with the American website Everyday Health claiming that “almost 80 percent of premenopausal women with a UTI have had sex within the previous 24 hours.” With the urethra positioned between the vagina and the clitoris, it comes into contact with various bacteria during sexual activity. Further, new or multiple partners also increase the risk.
- Physical contraceptives. Spermicides (including pre-treated condoms), IUDs and diaphragms are known to increase the incidence of UTIs.
- Other known risks include:
- Using a catheter (a flexible tube inserted through the urethra to the bladder to drain urine)
- A suppressed immune system from HIV or diabetes
- A blockage or restricted urine flow from kidney or bladder stones, injury or operation
- Faecal incontinence
- Poor hygiene
Reducing the risks
By being conscious of particular actions, you can reduce your chances of developing a UTI. Even following all these precautions, some women are very predisposed and will continue to suffer reoccurring events. So don’t ever feel it’s your fault.
Good toilet habits
- Always wipe from front to back to avoid contamination from the anus to the urethra – even if you’re only urinating
- Drink plenty of water (around two litres a day – more if you’re exercising or it’s warm) to ensure you’re urinating up to six times a day, flushing out bacteria
- Empty your bladder when you feel the urge, don’t hold on. Retained urine can create an environment that encourages bacteria to multiply. Try not to rush and make sure you’ve emptied your bladder completely. Some women find standing up and sitting down again can help with this
- Clean the anal and genital area of both partners before having sex
- Pass urine immediate afterwards to flush out bacteria
- Some women have discovered certain positions of intercourse are more likely to trigger a UTI. Pay attention to what you’re doing, and if a UTI develops, you might also be able to make a link
- Take care with acts that move from the anus to vagina or vice versa
- Choose condoms without spermicide and if you use an IUD or diaphragm and are suffering reoccurring infections, talk to your health care professional about alternatives
- Take a shower instead of a bath
- Wear cotton or bamboo underwear and loose pants. Man-made fibres, leggings, tight jeans and pants can all create a warm moist environment in the area, again encouraging bacteria to multiply and take hold
A word of warning
Although mostly affecting women, anyone can develop a UTI. In the case of
young children and the elderly, the familiar symptoms experienced by women (listed above) may or may not be present, so keep an eye out for the following UTI symptoms:
- The sudden onset of confusion
- Loss of appetite
- And in extreme cases in elderly, delirium
So, if you’re caring for someone who becomes unwell, it may be a UTI, and you must seek immediate medical advice.
If the urgency to pass urine is catching you out, a TENA liner could be the solution. Specifically designed to handle the thinner, faster flow of a weak bladder, they rapidly absorb and lock away fluid. This keeps you dry, odour free and feeling confident while the antibiotics take effect.
Take advantage of our Product Finder Tool, and Free Samples to find the product that best suits you.
Asaleo Care makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional, medical or other health professional advice.
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