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Urinary tract infection in women

If you’re a woman, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve already experienced, or will at some point experience, a urinary tract infection (UTI). Roughly one in five women will deal with a UTI in her lifetime. If you’ve had it once, it’s also likely you’ll get it again. Find out more about UTIs in women here, and get tips on how to recognize an infection, and ease symptoms.

What is a urinary tract infection?

A UTI is caused when bacteria invade the urinary tract causing an infection that is both unpleasant and painful, and for many people a recurring problem. Usually, the infection is caused by our own bacteria ending up where they don’t belong. The most common of these bacteria is E. coli, which normally lives in the intestine. Staphylococcus saprophyticus is often a source of infection among younger women, and a number of other bacteria can also be responsible.

Women are at a higher risk than men, and this has primarily to do with anatomy. The female urethra is relatively short and is also located close to the anus, from where bacteria can invade the urinary tract.

In women, oestrogen hormone levels also decline with age. This can cause the walls of the urinary tract to become thinner and dryer. The protective mucous membrane, or mucosa, becomes less acidic, which reduces its ability to fight off infection. This is why oestrogen hormone treatment is recommended to prevent UTIs. 

What are typical UTI and/or bladder infection symptoms in women? 

  • Feeling of pain or burning when urinating
  • Constant need to go to the toilet, as well as frequent urination
  • Small amounts of urine each time
  • Traces of blood in the urine
  • Strong-smelling urine, or urine that is dark, or cloudy
  • Feeling cold, however, often not with an actual fever
  • Sudden urinary incontinence

From a lower UTI to an upper UTI

The most common type of UTI occurs in the lower urinary tract, infecting the urethra and bladder. Highly virulent strains, if left untreated, can spread further up to the ureters and the kidneys, in the upper urinary tract. Kidney infection symptoms in women (and men) are considerably worse than lower UTI symptoms, and may include back pain, nausea and fever. Kidney infections are potentially serious since they can cause damage to the kidneys and even kidney failure if left untreated. Eventually, they can also lead to urosepsis, an infection of the bloodstream that requires intensive care. 

Can other conditions be confused with a UTI?

Yes. Asymptomatic bacteriuria (also referred to as "friendly" bacteria) in the urinary tract is a harmless condition that should not be treated with antibiotics. These bacteria will show no symptoms except for smelly urine in some people. This means that a positive dipstick test (nitrite and/or leucocytes) doesn’t prove that there is an ongoing UTI if there are no other symptoms. 
 
Dehydration can also cause dark, cloudy and smelly urine. So make sure to hydrate properly. 

How do you get rid of a urinary infection?

Most infections are effectively treated with antibiotics. Often a urine test is done to see which bacteria has caused the infection and then which antibiotic that will be most effective. In healthy women, mild infections can be cured spontaneously, but if you are experiencing severe symptoms of a UTI you should seek medical help.

What can you do to relieve symptoms of an ongoing UTI?

  • Stay hydrated in order to flush the bacteria out of the bladder
  • Use medication to ease pain, and reduce fever and inflammation
  • You can also use a heating pad and place it on your lower back or stomach to relieve the pain

How to prevent the infection before it takes hold

The most important method of prevention is to keep the genital area clean and healthy and able to protect itself against infection. Also, flush out bacteria by staying hydrated. Finally, try to ensure you empty your bladder entirely, as bacteria can thrive and multiply in the remaining urine.

You may frequently encounter advice about how to prevent UTIs, much of which has not been backed up by science — at least not yet. But there’s no harm in trying sensible ideas to see if they work for you. Below are some useful tips that might help you to prevent a UTI, which are more or less scientifically proven. 

A few tips on how to avoid UTIs:

  • When going to the toilet, it is recommended to wipe from front to back
  • Try not to over-wash or use harsh soap in your sensitive genital area as it can cause imbalance and then irritation.
  • Use TENA wash cream for your sensitive intimate area, and TENA barrier cream for protection.
  • Pay attention to drying the skin when changing hygiene products since bacteria grow better in moist areas
  • Use high quality, breathable TENA incontinence products which are safe and gentle to the skin.
  • It is recommended to urinate after having sex
  • Getting enough vitamin D has a positive effect on your immune system
  • If you easily get UTI try to take showers instead of baths
  • Locally applied vaginal oestrogen can be used, sometimes even in pre-menopausal women
  • Avoid condoms with spermicides, they may increase the risk of infection

If you have trouble emptying your bladder completely, this is what you can do to facilitate bladder emptying:

  • When going to the toilet, sit in a posture that relaxes the pelvic floor, leaning slightly forward with bent knees and feet resting on the ground or on a footstool
  • When you have finished voiding, stand up and sit down again a few times. This may encourage urine to be voided that was left behind the first time.