A bladder infection, also called cystitis, is a bacterial infection in the bladder. Some people call a bladder infection a urinary tract infection, or UTI, which refers to a bacterial infection anywhere in the urinary tract, such as the bladder, kidneys, ureters, or the urethra.
Bladder infections are caused by germs or bacteria that enter through the urethra and travel into the bladder. Normally, the body is able to remove the bacteria by clearing it out during urination. Sometimes, however, the bacteria attach to the walls of the bladder and multiply quickly, overwhelming the body’s ability to destroy them, resulting in a bladder infection.
Anyone can get bladder infections, but females are more prone to getting them than men are. The reason is that females have shorter urethras, making the path to the bladder easier for bacteria to reach. Females’ urethras are also closer to the rectum than men’s urethras are, providing a shorter distance for bacteria to travel. Other factors than can increase the risk of bladder infections for both men and women include:
- advanced age
- surgery in the urinary tract
- a urinary catheter
- urinary obstructions (blockage in the bladder or urethra)
- urinary tract abnormalities (caused by birth defects or injuries)
- urinary retention (difficulty emptying the bladder)
- narrowed urethra
- enlarged prostate
- bowel incontinence
If you have a bladder infection, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- cloudy or bloody urine
- foul-smelling urine
- low fever (this is rare with a bladder infection, and may be a sign the infection has spread to the kidneys)
- pain or burning when urinating
- frequent sensation of having to urinate, even when the bladder is empty
- cramping or pressure in the lower abdomen or lower back
A doctor diagnoses a bladder infection by performing a urinalysis. A urinalysis is a test that is performed on a sample of urine to check for the presence of white blood cells, red blood cells, nitrites, bacteria, and other chemicals that are present in urine when there is a bladder infection. A doctor may also perform a urine culture (a test to determine the type of bacteria in the urine). Once the type of bacteria is known, testing the bacteria for antibiotic sensitivity is performed to determine what antibiotic will best treat the infection.
Bladder infections are treated with prescription medications to kill the bacteria and relieve pain and burning. Home treatments may also help relieve symptoms and cure the infection.
Prescription oral antibiotics are used to kill the bacteria that are causing the bladder infection. If you are experiencing pain and burning sensations, your doctor may also prescribe a medication to relieve those symptoms. The most common medication used to relieve the pain and burning associated with bladder infections is phenazopyridine hydrochloride (Pyridium).
Drink plenty of fluids—water is best—to help flush the bacteria out of your bladder. Your doctor may recommend that you take over-the-counter ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or drink cranberry juice to increase the acid levels in your urine, which helps to kill the bacteria. Another benefit of cranberry juice is that it inhibits bacteria from adhering to the bladder walls, according to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine (Howell, 1998).
Most bladder infections go away after antibiotic treatment, with the symptoms generally disappearing within 24 to 48 hours. Some bladder infections spread to the kidneys due to antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria or due to other health problems.
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, antibiotics taken in small daily doses, to prevent or control future bladder infections.
Your doctor may recommend that you make one or more of the following lifestyle changes in order to help reduce or eliminate the occurrence of bladder infections:
- drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of fluids a day (consult with your doctor about the correct amount of fluid to drink if you have kidney failure)
- drink cranberry juice everyday
- urinate as soon as you feel the need
- wipe from front to back after urinating if you are female
- do not use douches, feminine hygiene sprays, or powders
- take showers instead of baths
- wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes
- change your underwear daily
- wear sanitary pads instead of tampons
- stop using a diaphragm or spermicide and change to an alternate form of birth control
- use nonspermicidal lubricated condoms instead of unlubricated or spermicidal lubricated condoms
- urinate before and after sexual activity
- talk to your doctor about using vaginal estrogen creams if you are a woman
Preventative Antibiotic Treatment
If you are a woman experiencing recurrent bladder infections, your doctor may give you a prescription for antibiotics to take daily to prevent infections, or to take when you feel symptoms of a bladder infection. He or she may also have you take a single dose of an antibiotic after sexual activity.
Written by: Rose Kivi and Matthew Solan
Medically reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP