We don’t need to tell you that urinary tract infections (UTIs) are awkward, uncomfortable and painful. With 1 in 2 women experiencing UTIs at some point in their lives, there’s a high chance you’ll encounter one (if you haven’t already).
In most cases, a trip to the GP and a course of antibiotics will resolve the infection. But for many of us, UTIs will return time and time again.
While eliminating our chances of contracting UTIs isn’t possible, it’s important to know what to do when UTIs return. This condition might be super common, but it doesn’t mean having frequent UTIs is always normal. So, what should you do if you keep getting UTIs? And, more importantly, how can you tell when things could be more serious?
What causes UTIs to occur in the first place?
Before we consider why UTIs reoccur, it’s important to understand where these infections come from. UTIs are a type of infection that occurs in our urinary system, which includes our bladder, urethra, urine tubes, and kidneys.
Typically, UTIs are caused by bacteria entering our urine system. In most cases, the bacteria that lead to UTIs are E. coli (which enters our body via our urethra). From there this bacteria can multiply, spread, and cause swelling and pain. This bacteria isn’t bad, but it does cause problems (a.k.a. infections) when it finds itself in the wrong place.
Who is most at risk of contracting UTIs?
There’s a bunch of reasons why certain people are more likely to contract UTIs than others. Women are much more likely to experience UTIs than men, with over 50% of us navigating a UTI at some point in our lives. The main reason for this? Our urethra is much shorter than blokes, which makes it a quick trip for bacteria to reach our bladder and urinary system.
But that’s not the only reason why someone is more likely to contract UTIs, with other risk factors including:
- Being sexually active: yep, sex plays a big role in shifting germs and bacteria into our urinary system.
- Using certain types of birth control (such as a diaphragm or spermicides): these contraception options can kill off helpful bacteria that stop UTIs from occurring.
- Being pregnant: as our hormones change during pregnancy, this can also change the bacteria in our urinary tract. Plus, it’s harder for us to completely empty our bladder with a growing bub inside, which can cause bacteria to grow and infections to form.
- Experiencing menopause: with less estrogen in our system, our vaginal tissue can become thin and dry and more susceptible to harmful bacteria.
- Navigating diabetes: a compromised immune defense system can make sufferers more susceptible to infections and nerve damage can make it difficult for some of us to completely empty the bladder.
- Experiencing kidney stones: this condition can stop the flow of urine around your urinary system and increase the chances of infection.
- Having a catheter in place: this thin tube is placed inside your urethra into the bladder for those who need it during surgery.
So, why do they keep coming back?
Although UTIs are super common (particularly for women), frequently experiencing infections isn’t something to ignore. It’s estimated that up to 30% of women who contract a UTI will have the infection return within 6 months of the initial infection.
A UTI is typically considered ‘chronic’ or ‘recurring’ if someone experiences 3 or more infections per year. In some cases, UTIs might not respond to treatment options (such as antibiotics) or might simply keep coming back every few weeks or months.
According to Chronic UTI Australia (the country’s leading patient advocacy group for chronic UTIs), recurring or chronic UTIs can be the result of ineffective or inadequate treatment options. That means someone might be prescribed the wrong type of antibiotics, might not treat the infection soon enough, or even not seek treatment at all. While most sufferers will see the infection subside after a simple course of antibiotics, roughly 25-30% of people will encounter complications or unresolved infections.
When a UTI isn’t properly treated, bacteria can move deeper into our urinary system (specifically the bladder wall and urethral lining). Once here, bacteria are harder to treat with antibiotics and can even lay dominant in our system for long periods of time (with occasional UTI flair-ups or acute infections).
Unlike an initial infection, the bacteria linked to chronic UTIs are deeply rooted and spread out across our urinary system and can often go undetected by typical diagnostic tools, making it even harder to identify and treat these ongoing and recurring infections.
How to treat recurring UTIs
The first step towards treating recurring or chronic UTIs is getting to the bottom of why they’re coming back. Your GP will typically ask for a urine sample that will help them identify the type of bacteria causing the infection in your urinary system. It can take a couple of days to receive the results and can help to identify the best treatment options for you.
In some cases, your GP may book you in for an X-ray or kidney scan if they think there might be some damage to your kidney. Alternatively, they may perform a cystoscopy which uses a long, thin tube with a microscope on the end to look for any irregularities in your urinary system that could be causing recurring UTIs.
The most common treatment for UTIs is a course of antibiotics, typically taken over a 1 week period. However, if you’re experiencing chronic UTIs your GP will likely prescribe a lower dose of antibiotics to be taken over the long-term to prevent infections. If you frequently experience UTIs after sex, your GP might even prescribe a specific dose of antibiotics to take after sex.
It’s important to follow the instructions provided by your GP and to finish your entire script (even if your symptoms go away) as this gives you the best chance of getting rid of the infection for good.
When to take further action
While it’s not common, it’s important to keep tabs on your symptoms as UTIs can become serious if left untreated. In some cases, the bacteria that causes UTIs can spread to the kidneys and cause kidney infection and damage (and in rare cases, kidney failure).
If you experience a high fever, back pain, severe diarrhea, and vomiting, make sure to see your doctor ASAP to find out what is causing these symptoms to occur. The sooner you take action, the better your chances of resolving your symptoms easily and efficiently.
UTIs are very common and uncomfortable, but experiencing frequent and recurring UTIs isn’t something you should put up with. By taking proactive steps to get to the bottom of your infection and speaking with your GP you’ll put yourself in the best position to find a treatment that works for you.