Monday Medical: Treating and preventing UTIs

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UTI: These are three letters you'll never forget if you've ever had a urinary tract infection. One in five women will suffer from a UTI in her lifetime. Many will have multiple occurrences. Yet this burning topic often goes unmentioned, primarily because of the awkwardness we feel when mentioning this part of the body.

Women are more likely than men to develop a UTI simply because of anatomy. The proximity of the vaginal opening to the urethra makes it easier for bacteria to travel up to the bladder. The urethra also is shorter in women, reducing the distance germs need to travel. A woman's individual anatomy also can make her more susceptible to infection.

The kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra make up the urinary system. An infection in any one of these is considered a UTI. An uncomplicated UTI is the most common ailment. This is often called a bladder infection.

Don't let the term "uncomplicated" fool you. Symptoms can be quite distressing: the almost constant urge to urinate; little urine production; pain or burning during urination; and for some, blood in the urine.

"Most people with symptoms will want to seek medical treatment because of the discomfort they are experiencing," explained Dr. Rick Brothers, a Steamboat Springs urologist.

Left untreated, the infection can spread to the kidneys and cause fever, chills, flank pain, nausea and vomiting in addition to the initial symptoms. The condition is then considered a complicated UTI. Sepsis -- blood poisoning caused by severe infection -- can become a life-threatening concern in severe cases.

Medical attention is essential at the first sign of symptoms. A family physician can diagnose and treat a UTI. When the infection is more serious or complicated, a primary caregiver may refer a patient to a specialist.

Typical treatment of an uncomplicated UTI usually includes a course of antibiotics and medication to ease the pain. Relief can be expected within 24 hours.

Women who have had multiple vaginal deliveries of children and subsequent prolapsed bladder have a higher incidence of UTI. When the bladder is prolapsed, it is unable to empty fully. This allows urine to collect and grow bacteria.

Diabetes also puts women at increased risk. High blood sugar produces a favorable environment for bacteria to multiply. Those with kidney stone disease also need to be alert to symptoms.

Brothers recommends that women pay careful attention to hygiene to reduce the possibility of contracting a UTI. For example, after using the toilet, a woman always should wipe from front to back with toilet tissue. This will ensure that fecal matter does not come into contact with the urethra opening.

Sexually active women should urinate and carefully clean up very soon after intercourse, Brothers said. He advises against using bubble bath products. Women who are susceptible to UTI should avoid soaking in communal hot tubs because of the bacteria that grow in the heated water, he added.

Brothers advocates drinking plenty of water and other fluids to clear the bladder of harmful germs. Cranberry juice also has long been suggested to prevent the occurrence of UTI. Blueberries now are being touted to have the same effect. Brothers supports these claims.

"Cranberry and blueberry juice prevent UTI because of their acidity," he said. "They keep urine acidity so low that bacteria can't grow."

We may feel uncomfortable discussing urinary tract infections, but that does not mean that we should not be aware of them. Take care of yourself. Do what you can to prevent an infection, and most importantly, get treatment if a UTI does arise.

Heather Rose is public relations coordinator at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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