What is a bladder infection?
Bladder infections almost always occur after a bacterial infection in the urine. It is the most common type of urinary tract infection (UTI), with women being much more prone than men. The onset age is around 40 years, although many women can be diagnosed in their 30s.
Informally known as a water infection, the medical name for bladder infection is Cystitis and it appears when Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria enter and travel up the urethra, infect the urine and inflame the internal bladder lining. E. coli is found primarily in the bowel, and lesser so, in the vagina and on the skin between the anus and the vagina (perineum). Although harmless in the bowel, E. coli bacteria thrives in urine’s acidic state and causes infection.
A woman’s shorter urethra allows the bacteria to reach the bladder quickly. Additionally, the close proximity of the urethral, vaginal and anal openings make it easy for bacteria to be transferred.
Most women will experience a bladder infection at least once in their lives. While it is painful and upsetting, it’s not dangerous or contagious and can’t be passed on to your partner during sex.
However, if a bladder infection is left untreated, it can ‘backtrack’ deeper into the urinary system from the bladder and end up in your kidneys. A kidney infection is very serious and you’ll need to see your doctor as soon as possible because it can cause kidney damage or even kidney failure.
Bladder infection symptoms
Here are some of the most common bladder infection symptoms.
The main symptom is pain when the bladder is full or filling. You may also experience pain in the pelvis, abdomen and, while voiding or during sex, in your vagina. Men may feel pain in their prostate, scrotum or penis.
The need to urinate frequently, including at night, is a classic bladder infection symptom. Some people with a severe bladder infection may urinate upwards of 40 times over the course of a full day/night compared to the usual seven or eight times.
This symptom develops when you’re unable to delay urination and feel an overwhelming urge to go, sometimes straight after having just been. It’s usually not associated with urinary leakage or a fear of leakage although urge incontinence does sometimes occur.
A change in your urine
Cloudy, bloody or smelly urine is another classic bladder infection symptom and a sign cystitis is present.
If a water infection moves from the bladder to the kidneys, you may also experience symptoms like fever, chills, back pain, nausea and vomiting as well as all the above symptoms. If you suspect a kidney infection, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
Causes of bladder infections
Many factors can cause a bladder infection, some of which include:
- Sexual activity — the risk increases the more often you have sexual intercourse
- Spermicide-coated condoms or a diaphragm with spermicide can alter the naturally protective acidity or pH of the vagina
- Menopause – changes to the lining of the vagina and urethra, reduction in elasticity and lubrication and an increase in pH, makes you more likely to have a bacterial infection
- A urinary catheter — can introduce bacteria directly into your bladder
- Diabetes — especially uncontrolled diabetes as your urine may contain more sugar, which in turn, feeds the bacteria and encourages them to grow
- Conditions that prevent you from emptying your bladder such as bladder or kidney stones, an enlarged prostate or being pregnant
- Irritants such as certain soaps
- Personal hygiene habits — wiping from back to front when going to the toilet
- A blockage in the urinary tract (cyst, stones, birth defect)
- The weight of your baby if you’re pregnant
- Genital prolapse (the dropping down of pelvic organs)
- An incorrectly placed tampon
- Spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis
- Vaginal infections such as candidiasis (thrush) or trichomoniasis can make a woman more susceptible to bladder infections
Diagnosing bladder infections
Sometimes a bladder infection can clear itself up, especially if you’re a woman in good health and take good care of yourself. However, you should see your doctor if:
- Your bladder infection symptoms don't improve after two or three days
- There’s blood in your urine
- You’re pregnant or think you may be pregnant
- You’re over 65
- You have a high temperature, feel sick or are vomiting
- There’s pain in your lower back or severe abdominal pain
- The bladder infection keeps recurring
- There are other problems with your urinary system such as kidney stones or you have difficulty emptying your bladder
- You have diabetes
Your doctor will no doubt ask about your symptoms and probably request a sample of your urine. They may test your urine with a dipstick or send the sample to a lab for more detailed tests.
Men who get a bladder infection should always see a doctor. Cystitis in men can be caused by an enlarged prostate, which needs to be checked.
Treating a bladder infection
The usual treatment for cystitis, or bladder infection, is with a course of antibiotics. This brings relief and helps stop the infection progressing until the laboratory testing of your urine sample is complete. Once your doctor has the results, you may be prescribed a stronger antibiotic to target any particular bladder infection symptom.
Always complete an antibiotic course, even if the symptoms disappear, in order to prevent the bladder infection recurring.
If you find antibiotics don't work, you could have a type of bladder infection called interstitial cystitis. This is a chronic (long-lasting) inflammation of the bladder wall that isn't caused by infection. Your doctor will be able to give you more information and help you manage this condition.
Top tips to prevent further bladder infections
When you chat with your doctor, they may suggest you make a few lifestyle changes including:
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Reduce your intake of alcohol, tea and coffee as these can all irritate the bladder
- Take urinary alkalinisers
- Place a hot water bottle, wrapped in a towel, between your legs. This makes the skin around the urethral opening hotter than the urine and can bring relief when urinating
- Take mild painkillers for pain relief
- Avoid eating any foods that can irritate the bladder while the infection is present, including foods with high acid content
- Drink cranberry juice everyday
- Urinate as soon as you feel the need
- Don’t use douches, feminine hygiene sprays, or powders
- Take showers instead of baths
- Wear clean cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes
- Use sanitary pads instead of tampons
- Stop using a diaphragm or spermicide and change to an alternate form of birth control
- Use nonspermicidal lubricated condoms instead of unlubricated or spermicidal lubricated condoms
Kimberly-Clark makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.