A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a colonization of at least one part of the urinary tract by an infectious agent. These can occur in either sex, although they are far more common in women. The most common infection is called cystitis, and is an irritation of the urinary bladder caused by infection. In more serious cases, this infection can eventually travel up to the kidneys and cause a condition called nephritis, or can travel down to the prostate and cause prostatitis in men. The most common cause of urinary tract infections are bacteria, although they can also be caused by yeast or viruses.
When the bladder becomes infected and inflamed, it creates a condition known as cystitis (bladder infection). Bacteria are the most common cause of cystitis and one species in particular: E. coli (Escherichia coli). E. coli is normally found in the human digestive tract, where it aids in digestion, but when it grows in other areas it will cause an infection. Other bacteria, yeast and viruses can also infect the bladder, causing similar symptoms. Interstitial cystitis is a chronic inflammation of the inner lining of the bladder wall. Its exact cause is unknown but it is usually non-infectious and occurs subsequent to several cystitis episodes.
The most common symptoms of cystitis are urinary frequency and urgency with burning pain on urination. Emptying the bladder may not relieve the symptoms. The urine may be cloudy, from the presence of the bacteria and can also be dark, or even “coke coloured”, due to the presence of blood. Lab testing of the urine will reveal the presence of bacteria and white blood cells from the immune system trying to fight the infection. Symptoms can be mild or severe, with a sudden or a delayed onset. Development of fever and lower back pain signal that the kidney is affected, and you should seek immediate medical attention. The symptoms of interstitial cystitis are the same but are usually recurring and lab testing is negative for the presence of bacteria.
Causes of UTI’s
There are a number of factors that can predispose an individual to bladder infections. The shape and location of the urethra can contribute to the risk of developing infection. The urethra is the small tube that connects the bladder to the outside world. In women the opening of the urethra is between the clitoris and the vagina, and in men it exits at the tip of the penis. If the urethra becomes irritated it can swell slightly, which restricts proper urine flow and can allow bacteria to accumulate. Many things can irritate the urethra including friction from tight clothing or sexual intercourse, allergic contact, and even external infections like STI’s (sexually transmitted infections) or yeast infections. Ultimately, any way that bacteria can get into the urethra and overgrow is a risk for a UTI. Douches, lubricants, latex condoms, spermicides and seminal fluid can also cause bladder irritation.
How to reduce your risk
To prevent infections, it is important to keep the area clean by cleansing the genitals carefully with gentle soap and warm water. Be sure to use clean, breathable, cotton underwear to help prevent infection. Avoid the use of perfumed or coloured hygiene products, including toilet paper and feminine hygiene products. Women should be sure to wipe front to back after using the washroom. Both sexes should be sure to urinate as soon as possible after sexual intercourse to help flush any bacteria out of the urethra. Try to reduce other risk factors for infection, such as: antibiotic use, oral contraceptive use, catheter use, sexually transmitted diseases, stress and poor nutrition. Exercise the bladder by contracting the bladder muscles as you would to stop the flow of urine. Repeat this several times a day to help tighten the muscles around the urethra to help keep it sealed.
Drinking more fluids is a simple dietary intervention that can help to prevent cystitis. Aim to drink 2-2.5 litres of filtered water or unsweetened cranberry juice daily. This flushes the urinary tract to make it more difficult for bacteria to grow. Cranberry juice inhibits bacterial growth and prevents the binding of the bacteria to the bladder wall. For more information, please see our Cranberry article. Carrot and watermelon juices also flush the urinary tract. Eat more fresh garlic for its natural antibacterial properties. Avoid spicy foods, acidic foods, refined carbohydrates, sugar in all forms, coffee, black tea, tomatoes, spinach and yeast because they may irritate the bladder and promote bacterial growth. For interstitial cystitis maintain an alkaline diet.
Supplements for UTI
There are a number of supplements targeted at eliminating urinary tract infections. The most commonly used are cranberry extract and mannose. Cranberry extract contains mannose and other constituents that can directly prevent and clear bacterial infections in the bladder. Mannose is a simple sugar that can prevent the binding of E. coli in the bladder and thus reduce colonization. Since E. coli is the most common pathogen involved in UTI’s, this is an effective treatment option in many cases. For more information, please see our Mannose article. Vitamin C, Echinacea, and other immune boosting nutrients can help the body to clear the infection naturally. For more information on boosting the immune system, please see our Immune System article. It is also a great idea to supplement with Probiotics that can colonize the urinary tract with healthy bacteria to prevent the growth of pathogenic strains. Lactobacillus rhamnosus is particularly successful at protecting the urinary tract. Claims: Traditionally used in Herbal Medicine as a diuretic to achieve flushing of the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary complaints. Traditionally used in Herbal Medicine as a urinary antiseptic to help relieve benign urinary tract infections
NPN Claims: Traditionally used in Herbal Medicine as a diuretic to achieve flushing of the urinary tract as an adjuvant in minor urinary complaints. Traditionally used in Herbal Medicine as a urinary antiseptic to help relieve benign urinary tract infections.
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