Medically reviewed by Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP FNP-C on June 23, 2022
It’s happening again. You get up to use the bathroom only to discover that nothing is coming out. And when you can urinate, you feel a burning sensation. You have yet another urinary tract infection (or UTI). How does this keep happening to you?
UTIs are an unfortunate but seemingly unavoidable reality for many people. These painful infections affect millions of Americans each year. But for some people, a UTI is not just a one-time problem — these unlucky folks experience frequent or recurring UTIs. So if you are someone who seems to get a UTI on the regular, you aren’t alone.
Dealing with recurring UTIs can be a painful, frustrating experience, especially if you are unsure as to why they keep coming back. When you don’t know the cause of a UTI, it can be difficult to find a solution or stop the behavior that is causing the UTI. In this article, we’ll help you discover the most common causes of frequent UTIs. We’ll also provide solutions to help you avoid them and live UTI-free.
What is a urinary tract infection?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a common infection of the urinary system. The urinary system includes your urethra, bladder and kidneys. When bacteria enters the opening of the urethra and gets into the urinary tract, it can cause a UTI. Common symptoms of a UTI include:
- A persistent urge to urinate
- A burning sensation when urinating
- Difficulty urinating
- Frequently passing only small amounts of urine
- Cloudy urine
- Red, pink, or brown colored urine (a sign of blood)
- Strong-smelling urine
- Pelvic pain in the center of the pelvic and pubic bone
As mentioned, UTIs are common infections that are usually easy to diagnose and treat with antibiotics. While the symptoms are painful and uncomfortable, they aren’t inherently dangerous. However, if the UTI is untreated and the infection spreads to the kidneys, things can get serious very quickly.
When a UTI goes untreated, it can lead to serious complications, including permanent kidney damage, blood infection or sepsis. Women who are pregnant are also at a higher risk of premature birth with a UTI.
6 Causes of Recurring UTIs
Recurring UTIs are a frustrating, uncomfortable problem. The sensation of having to constantly use the bathroom is disruptive and irritating. And the pain that comes along with a UTI can be difficult to manage. In addition, the more UTIs a person has, the higher the chance that the infection could become more serious.
However, before we can begin to talk about ways to avoid them, we need to understand why frequent UTIs happen. This list includes 6 common causes of recurring UTIs.
1. Genetics and Gender
UTIs are more commonly found in women. That isn’t to say that men can’t get UTIs, but it just isn’t as common. There are anatomical reasons for this. Women have shorter urethras than men, which means that bacteria can travel up the urinary tract faster. The opening of the urethra is also closer to the anus in women than in men. That means that the urethra is closer to potential sources of bacteria.
There is also a genetic component to UTIs. Some women have cells that are more receptive to bacteria. That means that it is harder for bacteria to be flushed out normally. These genetic cell receptors can’t be changed. Women who are genetically predisposed to retain bacteria need to practice prevention techniques.
2. Sexual Activity
During times of sexual activity, it’s much easier for bacteria to spread. Bacteria can come from a partner’s genitals, fingers, mouth, or even from toys. Due to the close proximity of the urethra to the vagina and anus, once again, women are more susceptible to UTIs from sexual activity. However, it is also possible for men to get a UTI during sex.
It’s recommended to urinate after sexual activity. This can clear bacteria from the urinary system before it causes an infection. You can also implement good sexual hygiene habits. That includes washing hands and intimate areas before and after sexual activity. Cleaning any toys that are used during intimate activities is also important for sexual health.
3. Bathroom Habits
Another common cause of recurring UTIs is bathroom habits. We all know the importance of bathroom hygiene, like washing hands, but there is much more to it. Fecal matter contains harmful bacteria that can lead to a UTI. If it ends up in the urinary tract frequently, it can cause recurring or chronic UTIs. Keeping fecal matter out of the urinary tract, therefore, is incredibly important.
For women, wiping from front to back helps to keep fecal matter away from the urethra. And it’s important that everyone makes sure genital areas are clean and dry before putting underwear back on. Clean underwear is another important key to avoiding a UTI, since fecal matter and bacteria can cling to the fabric and spread to the urethra.
4. Other Chronic Health Issues
UTIs can be a side effect of many other health issues. Having a suppressed immune system or other chronic condition can lead to frequent UTIs. Conditions like diabetes, autoimmune diseases, kidney and bladder stones, and neurological diseases can make you more susceptible to UTIs. Having scar tissue in the urinary system can also make you more likely to get UTIs.
Any condition that leads to prolonged bed rest can also be a cause of recurring UTIs. When you are unable to urinate frequently, bacteria can build up in your urinary tract. Similarly, if foreign objects like catheters are inserted into your urethra, bacteria can linger. Any type of surgery that changes the anatomy in your urinary system can also have an impact on UTI frequency.
If you have any of these conditions, it’s especially important to practice good urinary habits. Because the root cause of the UTI is a chronic health issue, you can’t do much to change it. That means that your other actions need to do the heavy lifting of keeping your tract bacteria-free. A doctor can help you go through other options like antibiotics.
5. Urinary Retention
We’ve all had times where we needed to hold our urine as there isn’t a bathroom nearby. However, frequent urinary retention can lead to recurring UTIs. When we urinate, we flush out our tract and naturally clean out any bacteria. If you aren’t urinating, the bacteria in the body has nowhere to go. It can fester and cause infections if not flushed out.
While occasionally holding it in usually won’t cause an issue, you should try and go whenever you feel as though you have to. This also helps reduce the chances of having stagnant urine in your system. If you have a blockage like a kidney stone or an enlarged prostate, it can make it difficult to go. Listening to your body and going whenever possible is a good rule of thumb.
Sometimes difficulty urinating can be due to prolonged bed rest, surgery, or nerve damage. If this is the case, speak to a doctor about options. They might be able to suggest remedies to help you go more frequently. They can also prescribe you with antibiotics if needed. Always speak to a doctor if you have trouble urinating, as it could be a bigger issue.
While both the genetics and anatomy of women can lead to increased UTIs, there is another specifically female risk factor: Menopause, the natural end of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Menopause typically begins in the late 40s or early 50s and is a normal part of aging where the ovaries no longer have eggs to release, and menstruation stops. While the symptoms of menopause are different for every woman, there are hormonal changes that can impact UTIs.
During menopause the hormone estrogen is produced at lower levels. This can cause changes in the tissues of the urinary tract which make you more vulnerable to infections there. If you are entering menopause and experience UTIs, drink plenty of fluids and urinate regularly to help prevent infection.
UTIs are a common infection. However, frequent and recurring UTIs are painful and frustrating to deal with. When you understand the causes of a recurring UTI, you can start to come up with solutions. Speaking to a doctor or health professional to find the right strategies to improve your specific situation.
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