Understanding Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

The urinary tracts of women and men are similar in many ways but there are differences that make it easier for bacteria to enter a woman’s urinary tract. First, the urethra in women is shorter than in men (1.5 inches vs. 4 inches) and near the vagina which is normally heavily colonized with bacteria. This makes it easy for bacteria to find their way into the bladder. Most UTIs are caused by bacteria that move up into the bladder from the vagina and rectum. Rarely, an infection can be caused by bacteria that spread from the kidneys, or by fungus. It is not unusual for women to have one or two UTI’s a year. This frequency of UTI’s does not usually require any special evaluation or treatment. When women are having 4 or more UTI’s in a year, this usually prompts more evaluation to see if there is a particular reason why they are occurring frequently.  

Women can get different kinds of UTIs. This usually affects the urinary bladder, but it can also involve the urethra or kidneys. Symptoms of a UTI include urgency, frequent urination, burning with urination, fever, or blood in the urine. A diagnosis of a UTI is confirmed with a test called a urine culture.

It is not possible to prevent every UTI, however, some recommendations that may reduce your risk are:

  • Wipe from front to back.
  • Wear cotton underwear during the day and, if possible, no underwear at night.
  • Only use water to cleanse the vaginal area. Use hypo-allergenic soaps (e.g. Dove) and detergents.
  • Urinate after having intercourse.
  • Make sure you are well hydrated. 6-8 glasses of liquids a day is good.
  • Cranberry extract has been shown to reduce the risk of UTIs. Drink cranberry juice or take in pill form as directed on the bottle.
  • Avoid douching.
  • If you have gone through menopause ask your doctor about vaginal estrogen supplements
  • Some women seem to have more trouble with UTI’s after taking a bath, using a hot tub, or swimming.  If this is the case for you, you may want to avoid these activities.

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