Cystitis: a common urinary tract infection
The urinary tract, or urinary system, is a complex part of the body that consists of:
- The kidneys
- Two ducts called ureters that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder
- The bladder, where urine is stored until it is discharged from the body
- The urethra, the duct that discharges the urine
UTIs have different names depending on where the infection is located in the urinary tract:
- Urethritis — in the urethra
- Cystitis — in the bladder
- Pyelonephritis — in the kidney
When bacteria enter the bladder through the urethra, cystitis can result. Although the urinary system is designed to prevent infections through the antibacterial characteristics of urine and a protective coating inside the bladder, at times bacteria will take hold, multiply and cause cystitis.
The most common culprit causing cystitis is a rod-shaped bacterium called Escherichia coli or E. coli. Normally E. coli inhabits the gut where it produces vitamin K and prevents the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestines. But because of its presence in the genital area, E. coli can be introduced into the urinary tract. Girls and women get cystitis more often than men because their short urethra allows bacteria to easily reach the bladder. If the bladder infection spreads upward through the ureters into the kidneys, pyelonephritis can result.
Types of cystitis
Although most bladder infections are caused by bacteria, some are not. Non-infectious causes of bladder inflammation include:
- Painful bladder syndrome or interstitial cystitis; cause is unknown
- Medications used in chemotherapy
- Radiation therapy of the pelvis
- Long-term use of urinary catheters
- Hypersensitivity to certain chemicals (sometimes found in bubble baths or feminine hygiene sprays)
How do I know if I have a bladder infection?
If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have a bladder infection:
- Constant urge to urinate
- Urinating frequently, but passing small amounts
- Burning sensation when urinating
- Bloody or cloudy urine
- Urine with a strong odor
- Strong, persistent feeling of having to go to the bathroom
- Discomfort or pain in the pelvis or groin area
- Low-grade fever
What do I do if I think I have cystitis?
If you think you have a bladder infection, you should see your doctor as soon as possible to receive appropriate treatment and prevent more serious complications such as a kidney infection. Your doctor may ask you for a urine sample and order a urinalysis to see whether bacteria, blood or pus are present in your urine. Your doctor may also inspect your bladder with a cystoscope, a thin tube with a light and camera attached which is inserted through the urethra into the bladder.
Cystitis caused by bacteria is usually treated with antibiotics. Using a heating pad or taking a warm bath may help ease your abdominal discomfort. Treatment choices for non-infectious cystitis depend on the cause of the inflammation, and may include pain management, increased fluid intake to flush out irritants, or avoiding products you are hypersensitive to.
Tips to prevent bladder infections
Cranberry juice contains proanthocyanidin, a plant flavonoid with antioxidant properties, which has been proven to reduce the risk of recurring bladder infections. One mechanism is it may prevent bacteria from “sticking” to the bladder wall. For people taking blood thinner medication, consult your doctor before drinking large amounts of cranberry juice.
Although more studies are needed to determine whether the following tips are effective in preventing bladder infections, they also are routinely recommended by doctors:
- Staying well hydrated can help flush bacteria from your bladder. It is recommended to avoid alcohol or caffeine-containing drinks.
- Urinate when you feel the need — don’t “hold it.”
- Urinating as soon as possible after having intercourse flushes out bacteria that may have been pushed into the urethra.
- Clean your genital area on a daily basis with a mild, fragrance-free soap.
- Women should wipe from front to back after a bowel movement to help limit the distribution of bacteria from the anal region to the vagina and urethra.
- Women should avoid using vaginal sprays or douches, since they may cause irritation.
- Take showers instead of baths.
- Ensure regular bowel movements. Constipation may reduce your bladder’s ability to empty completely.
- Avoid wearing tight or nonporous underwear.
Cystitis is the most common urinary tract infection. Because of their anatomical differences, women are at greater risk of developing it than men. Most bladder infections can be treated quickly and successfully with antibiotics. If not treated properly, bacteria can move upward, causing pyelonephritis, which could permanently damage the kidneys. Recognizing the signs of cystitis and consulting your doctor are the first steps in preventing more serious health problems including kidney damage.