About six in every 10 women will visit their physician for treatment of a urinary tract infection at least once in their lifetime. In fact, over one million emergency room visits in any given year involve urinary tract infection symptoms. Men can also get a UTI, but women are more likely to get them.
Most UTIs are caused by an E. coli bacteria infection. Women experience UTIs more frequently than men because bacteria don't have to travel far to reach the female bladder. Men have longer urethras than women because a man's urethra extends outside the body via the penis, making the male urethra part of the reproductive system as well as the urinary system.
The second most common strain of bacteria responsible for uncomplicated UTIs is called S. saprophyticus. Fungal UTI infections involving several species of Candida may also impact both men and women. However, many fungal UTI infections occur in people using a urinary catheter following a regimen of antibiotics that reduces the functioning of the immune system.
A UTI can cause urinary incontinence, but usually, the incontinence resolves itself once the UTI is successfully treated with antibiotics.
The pathology of a UTI involves certain species of bacteria invading cells that comprise the lining of the urinary tract. The general term for any type of microorganism, such as a bacterium, virus, or fungus, that causes a UTI is "uropathogen." Many uropathogens, such as E. coli, live in our gastrointestinal tract, where good bacteria keep levels of bad bacteria at acceptable levels. Populations of uropathogens residing in the gut can start growing unchecked and invade the urinary tract due to aging and health issues.
Common Signs of UTIs
- Frequent urination
- Burning, painful sensations while urinating
- Feeling like you have to urinate even if you've just urinated
- Cloudy urine, reddish urine, or streaks of blood in the urine
Pressure and achiness in your lower abdomen
- Strong-smelling urine
- Leakage due to feeling like your bladder is full all the time
Urinary tract infections involving just the bladder and urethra should not cause fever, chills, or nausea. However, if symptoms of a UTI are accompanied by a low-grade fever or you develop low back pain, you could have a kidney infection, which can be more serious than a UTI.
Risks and Complications of Untreated UTIs
Risk factors that may increase your chances of a UTI include:
- Having a history of UTIs
- Overuse of antibiotics
- Dehydration/not drinking enough water
- Age, since older women and men are more vulnerable to UTIs
- Sexual activity, especially if you have multiple sexual partners
- Spermicides for birth control, which can irritate urethral cells that fight infections
- Kidney stones or urinary tract blockages that inhibit the normal flow of urine out of the bladder, causing urine and bacteria to accumulate in the urethra
- Suppression of the immune system by a chronic disease, since this makes it easier for bacteria to live in the urinary tract
Doctors estimate that up to 42 percent of UTIs will resolve themselves without medical intervention. Reproductive-age and premenopausal women may be able to treat a UTI by drinking more water and cranberry juice and taking vitamin C supplements. However, if UTI symptoms persist for several days or worsen, you should always visit your doctor for evaluation and possible antibiotic treatment.
Under 5% of UTIs develop into a potentially serious kidney infection called pyelonephritis. In most cases of uncomplicated pyelonephritis in women under 40, this condition responds well to antibiotics. Alternatively, pyelonephritis in older women can permanently scar and damage the kidneys.
Another potential complication of an untreated UTI is sepsis. A potentially life-threatening blood infection, sepsis arises if the immune system generates excess inflammation in the body as it tries to fight infection. Untreated UTIs are responsible for approximately 30 percent of sepsis infections. Signs of sepsis include rapid breathing and heart rates, swelling of the body, fever, shock, and disorientation.
If you have difficulty preventing urine from leaking onto your inner garments, you may have an incontinence condition. You can typically determine the type of incontinence you have depending on why you're incontinent, how much leakage you experience, and when you have accidents.
Five of the main types of incontinence are:
- Stress: Leakage occurs when you sneeze, cough, laugh, or otherwise cause internal muscles to put pressure on the bladder.
- Urge: You have the inability to control a strong sense of urgency to urinate. Urge incontinence may be a sign of a UTI.
- Overflow: You have leaky urine when you can't fully empty your bladder. Overflow incontinence is more commonly seen in men than women due to aging and prostate problems.
- Mixed: This involves a combination of urge and stress incontinence.
- Functional: Physical or cognitive impairment may cause incontinence.
Causes of Incontinence
The leading causes of urinary incontinence are:
- Multiple pregnancies
- A hysterectomy
- Enlarged prostate
- Urinary tract infections
- Bladder or kidney stones
- Certain medications for high blood pressure and heart conditions
Signs of Incontinence
If you have symptoms of urge, stress, or mixed incontinence, you're not alone. In fact, approximately 60% of women and more than 10% of men will eventually deal with UTIs at some point, especially as they enter their 60s and beyond. Estimates put the prevalence of stress and urge incontinence in women older than 70 at over 40%.
Relationship Between UTIs and Incontinence
How Can a UTI Cause Incontinence?
UTIs irritate and inflame bladder tissues, causing the bladder to swell. Mild to moderate swelling of the bladder enlarges the opening of the bladder to the urethra, making it possible for urine to leak out of the bladder and into the urethra. Bladder inflammation attributed to a UTI can also provoke sudden urges to urinate, which raises the risk of leakage.
Types of Incontinence Caused by UTIs
A urinary tract infection does not always cause incontinence. Moderate to severe UTIs will likely produce symptoms of mixed incontinence—or symptoms of both stress and urge incontinence. The painful burning sensation accompanying many UTIs makes it even more difficult to prevent leakage from occurring.
Treatment and Prevention of UTIs and Incontinence
Treatment Options for UTIs and Incontinence
Following a urinalysis that looks for the presence of bacteria and the level of white blood cells in a urine specimen, physicians usually prescribe antibiotics to eliminate bacteria. Drugs prescribed to treat simple UTIs include Bactrim DS and Monurol. Also used to treat middle ear and intestinal infections, Bactrim DS combines two antibiotics called trimethoprim and sulfamethoxazole to quickly get rid of a UTI.
Many people taking antibiotics for a UTI see their symptoms disappear after 7 to 10 days. A full regimen of antibiotics must be taken for it to be effective at eradicating UTI bacteria.
Prevention Tips for UTIs and Incontinence
Although using these tips may not prevent a UTI from affecting your health, they may reduce the risk of recurring UTIs:
- Drink water to stay hydrated. Water helps flush uropathogens out of the urinary tract.
- Avoid holding urine frequently. Some jobs don't allow people much time to take frequent bathroom breaks. Constantly putting off going to the bathroom can increase the risk of a urinary tract infection.
- Urinate after sexual intercourse.
- Don't use scented tampons, vaginal deodorants, or powders. The chemicals in scented personal products can irritate sensitive vaginal tissues and disturb the balance of chemicals in the vagina and urethra.
The importance of seeking medical attention if you suspect you have a urinary tract infection or incontinence cannot be overstated. Even if you don't have all the signs of a UTI, you should always visit your doctor for lab tests to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
The Bottom Line
UTIs can cause urge incontinence, stress incontinence, or both. Bacterial inflammation weakens the lining of the bladder and urethra, causing pain, burning, and leakage. While urge or stress incontinence is a common side effect of a UTI, such types of incontinence should resolve after completing antibiotic therapy.
In some cases, older women may continue experiencing incontinence after a UTI or repeated UTIs. If this has happened to you, and you're tired of restricting your lifestyle to always be near a bathroom or home, check out Nexwear's full line of top-quality pads and underwear that can provide reliable and discreet protection from bladder leaks.