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Is that Burning Sensation a Urinary Tract Infection?

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Chances are, it’s happened to you: You go to the bathroom and feel a burning sensation when you urinate. That feeling is a telltale symptom of a urinary tract infection (UTI), and it’s one that most women are familiar with. UTIs are incredibly common. In fact, the risk of a woman contracting one in her lifetime ranges from 40 percent to more than 50 percent.  

UTIs are inconvenient and uncomfortable for sure. But beyond feeling miserable from the pelvic pain, frequent urination and that burning feeling, there’s a more serious consequence: A UTI can result in kidney damage if left untreated. 

Tola Fashokun, M.D., a gynecologist at the Johns Hopkins Women’s Center for Pelvic Health and Reconstructive Surgery, talks about the common causes of urinary tract infections, how to prevent them and when to see a doctor. 

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

Wondering where that burning comes from? A urinary tract infection happens when bacteria grow in the kidneys, bladder or urethra. The urethra is the tube that connects the bladder to the opening between the clitoris and the vagina so urine can exit the body. 

Once the bacteria settle in, they wreak havoc and can cause a laundry list of UTI symptoms that include:

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Frequent or painful urination
  • Feeling the urge to urinate even when your bladder is empty
  • Cloudy or reddish urine
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fever or chills
  • Lower back pain, a sign of worsening infection

Urinary Tract Infection Diagnosis

If you think you might have a UTI, don’t worry. Diagnosing one just requires a simple urinalysis. You urinate into a cup, and your doctor examines the urine for signs of infection. The standard course of treatment is three to five days of antibiotics. 

If your infections keep coming back, your doctor will probably order a urine culture, a specific test for UTIs. A culture identifies the bacteria causing your infection so your doctor can choose the most effective antibiotic to treat it.

Causes and Risk Factors of UTIs

Common causes of urinary tract infection in women include:

  • Sexual activity: “Your method of birth control, or even the act of intercourse itself, can bring bacteria into the urinary tract,” says Fashokun. A diaphragm can carry bacteria, while spermicide can change the bacterial makeup of the vagina. 
  • Immune system suppression: “Any condition that weakens the immune system lessens the body’s defense to bacteria,” says Fashokun. 
  • Voiding dysfunction: Conditions that make it hard to completely empty the bladder can raise the risk of a urinary tract infection. These include spinal cord injury or neuropathy, a condition that affects nerve function.
  • Menopause: Fashokun explains that during menopause, your body’s pH levels change, which alters the vagina’s bacterial flora (the community of microorganisms living in the vagina). This change in bacterial makeup increases your risk of UTI. 

How to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections

UTIs are unpleasant enough that most women will try anything to avoid getting one. Fashokun discusses some simple lifestyle changes that might help you prevent UTIs. These steps help reduce the chance of bacteria entering the urinary tract, which is the main cause of UTIs. Make sure to:  

  • Empty your bladder more often: Don’t hold it when you feel the urge to go. Fashokun says that you should empty your bladder at least every four hours during the day. And urinating after intercourse can help wash bacteria away from the urethral opening.
  • Practice safer wiping and cleaning: Wiping from front to back helps avoid bacterial contamination. Avoid irritating feminine products with dyes, fragrances and parabens. Instead, wash with water whenever possible. “And don’t douche ever, unless a doctor says to,” says Fashokun . 
  • Wear loose clothing: Women with repeated urinary tract infections should avoid tight-fitting clothes, including thongs. Cotton underwear lets the skin breathe more easily than synthetic fabrics like polyester. If you can, try to have a few hours a day where you don’t wear underwear at all. 
  • Switch your sanitary supplies: Tampons might be a better choice if you have recurrent UTIs because they keep the bladder opening drier than pads. “The pads keep bacteria right up against your urethra,” Fashokun says. Using a tampon helps you stay dry, which limits the growth of the bacteria that cause UTIs. Women who use incontinence pads are also at increased risk of infection. If you do wear pads, be sure to change them often.
  • Try a different birth control: If you have repeated urinary tract infections, you may want to avoid using a diaphragm and spermicide, including spermicidal condoms. Talk to your doctor about other birth control options that can lower your risk for UTIs.

Does Cranberry Juice Help Prevent UTIs?

You’ve probably reached for a bottle of cranberry juice or popped a few cranberry tablets to ward off a UTI. Though cranberry is a popular home remedy, the scientific jury is still out on it, Fashokun says: “We don’t have a lot of evidence that it works, but many patients find it helpful.” 

Fashokun says if you want to try it, take cranberry tablets rather than sugary cranberry juice. However, before taking any supplements, including cranberry tablets,  talk to your doctor. These tablets may interact with other medications you are taking, such as blood thinners. 

Treating UTIs

Symptoms of urinary tract infection may not always be as severe as nausea or vomiting, so it’s important to pay attention to your own body and intuition. Fashokun emphasizes that you should see a doctor if you experience any of the symptoms of UTI, especially pelvic pain, urinary leakage, painful urination or a frequent urge to go. A doctor can confirm a diagnosis and rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms. 

Don’t just suffer through a UTI and wait for it to go away on its own. Talk to your doctor for diagnosis and treatment so you can feel better. Getting treatment for UTIs is not just about feeling better now—it’s important to treat it so you don’t develop a more serious infection. So if you’re experiencing any changes in urination or unexplained pelvic pain, see your doctor. With the right treatment, you’ll be back to your active life in a few short days.

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