We usually don’t think twice when we need to use the bathroom. That is, unless we have a bladder infection, a kind of urinary tract infection (UTI). If you’ve ever felt a painful, burning or stinging sensation when you pee, or felt an unrelenting and constant urge to pee, you may have had a bladder infection. Though a common condition, and usually easily treatable, bladder infections lead to other health problems. In this article, we will take a closer look at bladder infections, their causes, symptoms, and treatment options.
What Is a Bladder Infection?
As the name suggests, a bladder infection is a bacterial infection of the bladder. You may have also heard it referred to as a urinary tract infection (UTI), since the bladder is part of the urinary tract (along with the urethra, ureters, and kidneys). Bladder infections are the most common type of UTIs, affecting an estimated 150 million people worldwide a year.
Most bladder infections tend to be acute, which means they have only been present briefly. Some people suffer from recurring, or chronic, bladder infections. In either scenario, early treatment, usually prescription antibiotics, is key for treating the infection and preventing the infection from spreading.
What Causes a Bladder Infection?
A bladder infection is typically caused by bacteria that enter the bladder through the urethra, which transports urine out of the body. Usually, our body naturally rids itself of such bacteria during urination. However, sometimes the bacteria attach themselves to our bladder’s lining, where they quickly multiply. When this happens, our bladder becomes inflamed, resulting in an infection known as cystitis. If not treated promptly, the bacteria can travel from the bladder along the ureters and into the kidneys, leading to a more serious illness, a kidney infection.
How Do I Know That I Have a Bladder Infection (Symptoms)?
The most common symptoms of a bladder infection are listed below. You may experience only some of these symptoms, and they may change or increase as the infection worsens.
- Burning, stinging, or pain during urination
- Bloody or cloudy urine
- Urine with an unusually strong and/or foul odor
- The need to urinate more often than usual (increased urinary frequency), although only small amounts of urine come out each time
- A sudden need to urinate (increased urinary urgency)
- Pressure or cramping in the lower back or abdomen
These symptoms are typical for what is known as a simple, or uncomplicated, bladder infection. This term is used to describe bladder infections that occur in otherwise healthy people and resulting in no complications. In contrast, some people who have certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, pregnancy, or have a urinary catheter or stents, may experience a more complicated bladder infection. In these cases, additional symptoms may occur, including:
- Fever and chills
- Back pain
- Confusion or other change in mental status—this is especially common in the elderly or chronically ill people who may not report any other symptoms.
Complicated bladder infections may require longer courses of antibiotic treatment than uncomplicated bladder infections.
How Is a Bladder Infection Diagnosed?
A bladder infection can be quickly and easily diagnosed with a simple urine test, which evaluates for the presence of bacteria and other related substances that indicate the presence of an infection. In some cases, the urine will be sent for additional testing, called a urine culture, which pinpoints which specific bacteria is causing the infection and narrows down the best type of antibiotic to treat it.
Bladder Infection Risk Factors
Due to anatomical differences in the length of the urethra and its proximity to the anus, bladder infections are far more common in women than men. In fact, sources estimate that more than 50% of women will experience a bladder infection at least once in their lifetime. Hormone changes around the times of menarche, pregnancy, and menopause also increase women’s risk of developing UTIs.
Additional general medical conditions that increase the risk of a bladder infection include:
- Urinary tract abnormalities
- Blockages in the urinary tract, like kidney stones or an enlarged prostate
- A weakened immune system (such as with HIV or diabetes)
- A recent urinary procedure involving medical instruments (such as a cystoscopy)
- Advanced age
Bladder Infection Treatment Options
The symptoms of bladder infections will typically subside within three days of starting medical treatment with antibiotics. Additional medication can also be prescribed to relieve symptoms during the first few days of treatment. Due to the risk of bacterial resistance, it’s important to finish all antibiotics prescribed, even if you’re feeling better. Staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoiding sugary drinks can also help to clear the infection.
While bladder infections are usually relatively simple to treat, if they are not caught early, or if you have other serious medical conditions, they can lead to complications, including kidney infections. It’s also possible that the bacteria causing your bladder infection is resistant to the antibiotics you were prescribed. So, if your symptoms remain or get worse—even after completing the full dose of your medical treatment—it’s recommended to see your doctor immediately.
Kidney infections are one of the most common complications of inadequately treated bladder infections. While symptoms may vary, the most common ones include:
- Feeling very ill
- Fever and/or chills
- Low back or flank pain
Recurrent or Chronic Bladder Infections
While most bladder infections subside within three days after treatment begins, some people suffer from recurrent or chronic bladder infections. In such cases, your symptoms may decrease during treatment but will then recur. Treating chronic bladder infections cane be complicated, and may require a combination of antibiotics, long-term medications, and aggressive preventive measures. This treatment regimen should be directed by your doctor.
Bladder Infection Prevention
Although bladder infections are common, there are multiple ways to prevent them. Consider the following lifestyle tips:
- Stay hydrated by drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day
- Drink cranberry juice daily (bacteria binds to the cranberry juice instead of your urinary tract!)
- Urinate as soon as you feel the need
- If you’re female, wipe from front to back after bowel movements and urination
- Urinate before and after sex
- Avoid using feminine hygiene sprays, douches, scented soaps, or powders
- Take showers instead of baths, especially avoiding bubble baths
- Wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes
When to See a Doctor
While most bladder infections are relatively easy to treat, it is important to recognize the symptoms of a possible infection and be evaluated by your doctor as soon as possible. Prompt treatment of a bladder infection, as well as following recommended preventive measures, can reduce your chances of developing serious complications.
How K Health Can Help
Bladder infections can be treated with antibiotics. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.