You’ve just arrived at a long awaited, weekend getaway. You selected a remote location for maximum relaxation but now it doesn’t seem like such a brilliant idea. You’ve gone to the toilet five times in the past hour and are starting to experience a familiar discomfort in your pelvis. You can’t believe it! Of all times for this to happen. The closest health center is over 100 miles away and it’s may even be closed on the weekend. What can you do?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) or cystitis occurs when bacteria grow and adhere to the cells lining the bladder. These bacteria typically travel from the anus to the vagina and then invade the urethra and bladder. Sexual activity is the major factor that tends to increase the risk of an infection. Many young women experience their first UTI shortly after becoming sexually active. This problem also plagues older women, especially after menopause.
Common symptoms of a urinary tract infection include pain with urination, urinating more frequently, urinating small amounts at a time and urgency of urination. A sexually transmitted infection (STI) can have similar symptoms as a UTI. It is important to discuss your risk of a STI with your healthcare provider when you seek treatment. Tests to check for the presence of these infections may be recommended and in many cases a urine culture is also required to identify the bacteria involved and check its response to commonly prescribed antibiotics.
If left untreated, a bladder infection can ascend the urinary tract and spread to the kidney, at which point it is called pyelonephritis or a kidney infection. The symptoms include abdominal, side, and back pain as well as a fever. Kidney infections are very serious and may require hospitalization for treatment. If left untreated, a kidney infection can spread to the blood stream causing a systemic infection. At this point it is called sepsis and will lead to death if not treated immediately.
There are ways to prevent a UTI. Drink plenty of water to keep the urine dilute and to wash out any bacteria trying to ascend into the bladder. After using the toilet, wipe from front to back to avoid contaminating the urethra with fecal material. Always urinate after sexual intercourse to flush away bacteria that may have started to travel through the urethra. Don’t douche. This increases your risk of both bladder and vaginal infections. Taking cranberry tablets or drinking cranberry juice, acidifies urine making it more difficult for bacteria to grow in the bladder.
What should you do if you have symptoms concerning for a urinary tract infection and can’t get to a health care provider immediately? Drink plenty of water to dilute the urine. Over the counter bladder analgesics such as those containing phenazopyridine (pyridium, AZO, Uristat) helps to relieve the symptoms of urgency and pain. Go see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Certainly, there are cases where the infection resolves on its own but you don’t want to take the chance. If the symptoms are getting worse, you have side and back pain, you feel feverish or tired then it is imperative that you are seen immediately.
Don’t ignore your body. A simple UTI can develop into serious infection if left untreated. If you are prone to these infections, then ask your doctor for advice when you are traveling. Keeping a bottle of antibiotics available in the event of an unexpected infection is an option. Tune into your body and become proactive in managing your health.
Denise Howard, MD, MPH is a Senior Attending Physician at Sidra Medical and Research Center and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar. Click to purchase her new book, The Essence of You: Your Guide to Gynecologic Health, published by WAT-AGE Publishing.
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