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Bladder infection

What are bladder infections?

Bladder infections are a common cause of cystitis, or inflammation of the bladder.

Cystitis is more common for women than it is men. That's because it is easier for a woman's urethra to be infected with bacteria from the anus.

Although bladder infections are less common in men, they may be a sign of a more serious condition, including enlarged prostate or tumour in the urinary tract.

Bladder infections are not serious if treated right away. But they tend to come back in some people. This can lead to kidney infections, which are more serious and may result in permanent kidney damage. So it's very important to treat the underlying causes of a bladder infection and to take preventive steps to stop them from coming back.

In elderly people, bladder infections are often difficult to diagnose. The symptoms are less specific and are frequently blamed on ageing. Older people who suddenly become incontinent or who begin acting lethargic or confused should be checked by a doctor for a bladder infection.

What causes bladder infections/cystitis?

Most bladder infections are caused by various strains of E. coli, bacteria that normally live in the gut.

Women sometimes get bladder infections after sex. Vaginal intercourse makes it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder through the urethra. Some women contract the infection - sometimes called "honeymoon cystitis" - almost every time they have sex. Women who use a diaphragm as their primary method of birth control are also particularly susceptible to bladder infections, perhaps because the device presses on the bladder and keeps it from emptying completely. Bacteria then rapidly reproduce in the stagnant urine left in the bladder. Pregnant women, whose bladders become compressed as the foetus grows, are also prone to infections. Use of condoms and use of spermicides also increase the risk of urinary tract infections.

Bladder infections can be quite uncomfortable and potentially serious, but for most women, they clear up quickly and are relatively harmless if treated.

In men, a bladder infection is almost always a symptom of an underlying disorder and is generally a cause for concern. Often it indicates the presence of an obstruction that is interfering with the flow of urine.

Home and hospital use of catheters - tubes inserted into the bladder to empty it - can also lead to infection.

Some people develop symptoms of a bladder infection when no infection actually exists. Termed interstitial cystitis, this is usually benign but often difficult to treat.

What are the symptoms of cystitis?

Symptoms of bladder infections like cystitis, include:

  • A burning sensation when urinating - this is the most common sign of a bladder infection
  • Frequent urge to urinate
  • Urine with a strong, foul odour
  • Bladder spasm
  • In elderly people - lethargy, incontinence, and/or mental confusion
  • In severe cases, these symptoms may be accompanied by fever and chills, abdominal pain, and  blood in the urine
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