A bladder infection, also called cystitis, is a bacterial infection within the bladder. Some people call a bladder infection a urinary tract infection (UTI). This refers to a bacterial infection anywhere in the urinary tract, such as the bladder, kidneys, ureters, or the urethra. While most cases of bladder infection occur suddenly (acute), others may recur over the long-term (chronic). Early treatment is key to preventing the spread of the infection.
Bacteria that enter through the urethra and travel into the bladder cause bladder infections. Normally, the body removes the bacteria by clearing it out during urination. Men also have added protection with the prostate gland, which secretes protective hormones as a safeguard against bacteria. Still, sometimes bacteria can attach to the walls of the bladder and multiply quickly. This overwhelms the body’s ability to destroy them, resulting in a bladder infection.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), most bladder infections are caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli). This bacterium is naturally present in the large intestines. An infection may occur if there is too much bacteria in the body or if it’s not destroyed properly through urination.
Chlamydia and Mycoplasma are other bacteria that can cause infections. However, unlike E. coli, these are typically transmitted only through sexual intercourse, and they affect the reproductive organs in addition to your bladder.
Anyone can get bladder infections, but women are more prone to getting them than men. This is because women have shorter urethras, making the path to the bladder easier for bacteria to reach. Females’ urethras are also located closer to the rectum than men’s urethras. This means a shorter distance for bacteria to travel.
Other factors can increase the risk of bladder infections for both men and women. These include:
- advanced age
- insufficient fluid intake
- surgical procedure within the urinary tract
- a urinary catheter
- urinary obstruction, which is a blockage in the bladder or urethra
- urinary tract abnormality, which is caused by birth defects or injuries
- urinary retention, which is difficulty emptying the bladder
- narrowed urethra
- enlarged prostate
- bowel incontinence
While women are overall more prone to bladder infections, men are not completely immune to them. Furthermore, the NIDDK says that bladder infections in women tend to be more serious than those in men. This is because bacteria can make its way to tissues within the prostate gland and hide within the tissues.
The symptoms of a bladder infection vary depending on the severity. You’ll immediately notice changes during urination. As the infection progresses, pain also occurs.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- cloudy or bloody urine
- urinating more often than usual
- foul-smelling urine
- pain or burning when urinating
- a frequent sensation of having to urinate, which is called urgency
- cramping or pressure in the lower abdomen or lower back
Bladder infections can also cause back pain. This pain is associated with pain in the kidneys. Unlike muscular back pain, you might experience pain on both sides of your back or the middle of your back. Such symptoms mean the bladder infection has likely spread to the kidneys. A kidney infection can also cause a low fever.
A doctor can diagnose your bladder infection by performing a urinalysis. This is a test performed on a sample of urine to check for the presence of:
- white blood cells
- red blood cells
- other chemicals that are present in the urine when there is a bladder infection
Your doctor may also perform a urine culture, which is a test to determine the type of bacteria in the urine. Once the type of bacteria is known, testing the bacteria for antibiotic sensitivity is performed to determine what antibiotic will best treat the infection.
Bladder infections are treated with prescription medications to kill the bacteria and relieve pain and burning. Home treatments may also help relieve symptoms and cure the infection.
Oral antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria that are causing the bladder infection. If you’re experiencing pain and burning sensations, your doctor may also prescribe medication to relieve those symptoms. The most common medication for relieving the pain and burning associated with bladder infections is called phenazopyridine (Pyridium).
Plenty of fluids can help flush the bacteria out of your bladder, but water is best. Your doctor may recommend that you take over-the-counter ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or drink cranberry juice to increase the acid levels in your urine, which helps to kill the bacteria. Another benefit of cranberry juice is that it prevents bacteria from sticking to the bladder walls.
Certain lifestyle changes may reduce your chances of getting a bladder infection. If you have been experiencing recurrent bladder infections, your doctor may recommend prophylactic treatment. This consists of antibiotics taken in small daily doses to prevent or control future bladder infections.
The following lifestyle changes may help reduce or eliminate the occurrence of bladder infections:
- drink six to eight glasses of water a day, but consult with your doctor about the correct amount of fluid to drink if you have kidney failure
- drink cranberry juice daily
- urinate as soon as you feel the need
- wipe from front to back after urinating if you are female
- don’t use douches, feminine hygiene sprays, or powders
- take showers instead of baths
- wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes
- change your underwear daily
- wear sanitary pads instead of tampons
- avoid using a diaphragm or spermicide and change to an alternate form of birth control
- use nonspermicidal lubricated condoms
- urinate before and after sexual activity
Preventive Antibiotic Treatment
If you’re a woman experiencing recurrent bladder infections, your doctor may give you a prescription for daily antibiotics to prevent infections or to take when you feel the symptoms of a bladder infection. They may also have you take a single dose of an antibiotic after sexual activity.
Most bladder infections subside within 48 hours of taking the appropriate antibiotic. Some bladder infections spread to the kidneys due to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria or other health problems.
Chronic bladder infections require a combination of treatment and more aggressive preventive measures. Long-term daily antibiotics may be necessary in some extreme cases. Being proactive about bladder infections can help reduce their occurrence, as well as the pain that accompanies them. The earlier you seek treatment, the less likely the infection will spread.