Chances are, you've experienced the agonizing telltale symptoms of a urinary tact infection (UTI): the constant need to pee, and the awful burning sensation every time you go. UTIs are one of the most common types of infections, resulting in more than 8 million doctor visits each year.
“UTIs are most often caused when bacteria gets into the urethra,” which is the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body, Daniela Carusi, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, tells Health. They can occur in any part of the urinary tract—kidneys, ureters, bladder or urethra.
Most of the time, your body flushes out the bacteria with your pee, no problem. But sometimes the bacteria stick around and grow. While most women will notice it when it hurts to pee, some may just feel a dull pelvic ache or cramps, or even develop a fever.
Whether it’s your first UTI or you’ve had one multiple times, here's what you need to know to deal with this common yet stubborn and painful problem.
You need to see your doctor
If you're feeling the burn, don’t wait around. You need to see a doctor to prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the urinary tract. While over-the-counter remedies help you feel better (more on those later), only antibiotics can cure an active infection.
Your doc can take a urine sample and do a rapid, in-office test for infection. Sometimes other problems like yeast infections can mimic the symptoms of a UTI, so she'll want to know exactly what's going on. If the test is positive, she can prescribe the correct antibiotic.
While all UTIs require prompt treatment, this is particularly important if you’re pregnant. “If you don’t treat it, even in the early phases, it can cause early labor,” says Dr. Carusi
Pain relief is within reach
The good news: Once the antibiotics kick in, you’ll start feeling much better. The bad news: It might take a day or two. How can you find relief if you’re in crazy pain while waiting for a doctor’s appointment or the antibiotics to work their magic?
The best thing you can do is drink lots of water. Yes, this will make you pee more, but frequent bathroom trips will help move the bacteria out of your system. Plus, the extra water will dilute your urine, taking away some of the sting. “Keeping the bladder flushed can help with the pain while waiting for treatment,” says Dr. Carusi.
Over-the-counter medication like AZO, which acts as an antiseptic for your bladder, can also diminish your discomfort. Pain relievers like ibuprofen can help ease your aches and any flu-like symptoms.
You can get a UTI again…and again
Sad, but true: Your first UTI is likely not your last. “Recurrent UTI is fairly common,” Jennifer Ashton, MD, an ob-gyn and chief medical correspondent and health editor for ABC News, tells Health.
UTIs come back for a number of reasons. One big one: not finishing your antibiotics. This can allow lingering bacteria to multiply and re-start the infection, so be sure to finish the entire prescribed course, even after you start feeling better.
Also, simply being female puts you at risk for repeat infections because women have shorter urethras compared to men, which makes it easier for bacteria to get in to the tract and reach the bladder, says Dr. Carusi.
Sex causes it, too
No, UTIs aren't a sexually transmitted infection, but the physical act of sex can bring one on. “Since the urethra sits right next to the vagina, bacteria in the vagina can move around and get into the urethra and the bladder,” says Dr. Carusi.
To help lower your risk of infection, pee right before and after your next sex session to flush the urethra of bacteria. An extra step to take if you're already doing that: pee, then clean the area around the vagina and rectum with a wet wipe.
So can condoms
Condoms with spermicide are crucial for safe sex, but they can also irritate the skin around your vagina and urethra, making it easier for bacteria to invade, says Dr. Carusi. If you're experiencing recurrent infections, and peeing after sex isn't helping, you might consider discussing other types of birth control with your doctor. It may be as simple as switching condom brands.
Cranberry juice really might help
We've all heard that cranberry juice is great for your bladder. While a helping of cranberry can't treat an infection, drinking cranberry juice in addition to staying hydrated generally might be helpful for supporting the health of your urinary tract. “The theory is that [cranberry juice] interferes with the bacterial ability to adhere to the bladder wall,” says Dr. Ashton.
It’s not just a young woman’s issue
While sexually active young women are prone to UTIs, that doesn't mean older women aren't at risk, too. As hormone levels drop during menopause, skin gets more fragile, even in and around your vagina. “The skin in the vagina and urethra changes quite a bit,” says Dr. Carusi. “It gets thinner and can be more susceptible to infections.”
Fortunately, applying a topical estrogen cream, available by prescription from your doctor, often helps. Bonus: These creams can help with vaginal lubrication and relieve symptoms of vaginal irritation that can be a problem during menopause, too.
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