Many people — women, in particular — have experienced that peculiar burning pain that signals a urinary tract infection (UTI) of some kind. And while many people refer to a UTI as a “bladder infection,” the two conditions are different. Let’s examine what constitutes a true infection of the urinary bladder.
WHAT IS A BLADDER INFECTION?
The medical term for a bladder infection is “cystitis.” This should not be confused with “interstitial cystitis,” which is a chronic condition that causes pelvic pain and frequent urination.
Cystitis, on the other hand, is a bacterial infection of the urinary bladder. It is considered an “acute” condition, meaning it comes on suddenly and then gets treated and goes away.
Bladder infections are more common in women because the urethra is shorter and exits near the anus, which can be a source of fecal contamination that causes the bladder to get infected. Because men have a longer urethra that is completely separate from the rectal area, UTIs and bladder infections are less common in men.
BLADDER INFECTION CAUSES
Bladder infections are caused by the colonization of bacteria in the bladder. True bladder infections are unusual because the body is good about keeping bacteria out. The bladder can become infected when bacteria travel up the urethra (the tube inside your body that enables you to empty urine from your bladder) and into the bladder itself.
Bacteria can get into the bladder in several ways. Fecal material containing a bacterium like E. coli may find itself in the urethra due to poor hygiene after a bowel movement. These bacteria can then colonize the urethra and move all the way up into the bladder. However, you probably would notice symptoms of the urethral infection and seek treatment long before the bacteria reached the bladder.
Using urinary catheters can greatly increase the risk of a bladder infection. Anyone who self-caths should use strict hand hygiene (washing well with soap and water before cathing) and employ good technique to avoid contaminating the catheter before it’s inserted. Merely by touching a contaminated area of skin, a catheter can transfer bacteria directly into the bladder, where it can cause an infection.
In the hospital, a urinary catheter can cause a bacterial infection by creating a “pathway,” if you will, for bacteria to travel to the bladder. For this reason, many hospitals have policies to avoid re-catheterizing patients too frequently.
TREATMENT OF BLADDER INFECTIONS
Since bladder infections are caused by bacteria, the usual treatment consists of a course of antibiotic medications to kill the bacteria. Your doctor may take a sample of your urine to determine which specific bacterium is causing your infection. That way he or she can target the bug with a specific antibiotic.
It’s very important to take the entire course of antibiotics, even if your symptoms get better before you’re finished. Just because you feel better doesn’t mean all the bacteria have been eliminated. Your symptoms could improve because the number of bacteria have been reduced but not entirely wiped out. For this reason, you must always take the whole bottle of antibiotics as prescribed.
PREVENTION OF BLADDER INFECTIONS
You can prevent bladder infections and UTIs by following good hygiene practices after a bowel movement. Women should wipe in a front-to-back motion to avoid pushing fecal material onto the urethral opening. Partners should make sure they’re both clean before engaging in sexual intercourse, as this also can transfer bacteria onto the urethral opening where it can travel to the bladder. Men and women who perform home catheterization should be very careful about preserving the sterility of the catheter before insertion.
Most importantly, just wash your hands before touching your genital area. This simple tip alone can help you avoid the pain and discomfort that comes from a bladder infection.