A bladder infection is most often caused by a bacterial infection within the bladder. In people with weakened immune systems, yeast can cause bladder infections as well. A bladder infection is a type of urinary tract infection (UTI). This refers to an infection anywhere in the urinary tract, such as the bladder, kidneys, ureters, or the urethra. Most cases of bladder infections are acute, meaning they occur suddenly. Other cases may be chronic, meaning they recur over the long term. Early treatment is key to preventing the spread of the infection.
Bacteria that enter through the urethra and move into the bladder cause bladder infections. Normally, the body removes the bacteria by flushing them out during urination. Still, bacteria can sometimes 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 type of bacteria is naturally present in the large intestines. An infection can occur when bacteria from the stool get onto the skin and enter the urethra. In women, the urethra is short and the outside opening is not far from the anus, so bacteria can easily move from one body system to another.
Explore the interactive 3-D diagram below to learn more about a bladder infection.
The symptoms of a bladder infection vary depending on the severity. You’ll immediately notice changes during urination.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- pain or burning when urinating
- cloudy or bloody urine
- urinating more often than usual, which is called frequency
- foul-smelling urine
- a frequent sensation of having to urinate, which is called urgency
- cramping or pressure in the lower abdomen or lower back
When bladder infections spread, they can also cause mid-back pain. This pain is associated with infection in the kidneys. Unlike muscular back pain, this pain will be persistent regardless of your position or activity. A kidney infection will often cause fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. You’ll typically feel quite ill. Kidney infections are more serious than bladder infections and require urgent medical attention.
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 there is a shorter distance for bacteria to travel. As men age, the prostate can enlarge. This can cause blockages to the flow of urine and increase the likelihood of a man developing a UTI. UTIs tend to increase in men as they age.
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 means difficulty emptying the bladder
- narrowed urethra
- enlarged prostate
- bowel incontinence
- nervous system conditions that affect bladder function, like multiple sclerosis
- weakened immune system
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
Your doctor may also perform a urine culture, which is a test to determine the type of bacteria in the urine causing the infection. Once the type of bacteria is known, it will be tested for antibiotic sensitivity to determine which antibiotic will best treat the infection.
Bladder infections are treated with prescription medications to kill the bacteria (antibiotics) and medications that relieve pain and burning.
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).
When you have a UTI, drinking plenty of fluids can help flush the bacteria out of your bladder. Water is best because it is free of caffeine and artificial sweeteners, which are known bladder irritants.
Concentrated cranberry solutions, juices, and extracts may have a role in preventing UTIs against the bacteria E. coli. But they should not be solely relied upon to treat an active infection. In a recent study published in Frontiers in Microbiology, cranberry juice did lower the number of bacteria in the bladder during an infection, but it did not cure the infection completely.
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 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 based on your overall health.
- 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, scented soaps, or powders.
- Take showers instead of baths.
- Wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes.
- Avoid using a diaphragm or spermicide and change to an alternate form of birth control.
- Use non-spermicidal 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. It is important to finish all antibiotics prescribed, even if you are feeling better. Some bladder infections can worsen and spread to the kidneys due to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, delayed or inadequate treatment, or other health problems. If you have recurrent UTI’s, it’s important to see your doctor. You many need certain tests to make sure your urinary system is otherwise healthy.
Chronic bladder infections require a combination of treatment and more aggressive preventive measures. Long-term daily antibiotics may be necessary in some cases. Being proactive about bladder infections can help reduce their occurrence, as well as the pain and possible complications that accompany them. The earlier you seek treatment, the less likely that the infection will spread and the sooner you’ll feel better.
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