Cystitis: it’s arguably one of the most inconvenient infections you can get and, with it accounting for three million GP visits each year, chances are you know why. From a relentless need to wee to a stinging sensation down there, cystitis symptoms are the devil's work.
'Cystitis is a very common intimate health issue, which many women will experience not once, but multiple times, in their lifetime,' says consultant gynaecologist Dr Tania Adib.
What actually is cystitis?
Cystitis is a common type of urinary tract infection (UTI) that causes inflammation of the bladder – hence all the pain when you wee.
In most cases, cystitis relates to a bacterial condition in the bladder. The vast majority of infections come from bacteria that originate in the bowel.
Consultant gynaecologist Dr Anne Henderson, who is working with women’s intimate health brand, Canesten, explains: ‘This is when bacteria that comes from the gut ends up on the vulva or the perineum and travels up the urethra and up into the bladder. The bladder is usually a completely sterile environment and when bacteria breach the defence walls, this is when infection takes hold.’
Most cases clear up by themselves in a few uncomfortable days, but for some people, cystitis may be an unwelcome recurring guest.
If you get more than two bouts a year, it may be worth seeking professional treatment. 'If left undiagnosed and untreated, cystitis can lead to other more serious conditions such as a kidney infection, or it may even develop into septicaemia,' Dr Adib adds.
What are the symptoms of cystitis?
Pain when weeing, which often described as weeing broken glass (not fun!)
Going to the toilet much more frequently
Passing very small amounts of wee
Blood in your wee
What causes cystitis?
Honestly? You're probably getting cystitis thanks to sex. When you have sex, new bacteria can be introduced to your urinary tract, causing the problem.
Dr Henderson says: ‘If you’re prone to cystitis, you should urinate within twenty minutes of having sex. Not immediately as that’s too soon – you want the bacteria that is working its way up the urethra to get to the bladder, and then the urine that you release should flush out the bacteria.'
‘Some women go one step further and take a single dose of an antibiotic at the same time as they wee, however this is only to be done after seeking medical advice', she adds.
And if your attacks are on some sort of pain loop from hell? ‘You could consider a supplement called D-manose,' says Dr Henderson.
'It doesn't work for everybody, but I’ve seen a lot of success with it. It is a large molecule of sugar and comes in a powdered form that you ingest. It binds to the bacteria in your bladder, as they jump on to the sugar molecules rather than the bladder wall and the next time you wee the bacteria gets flushed out.'
What are some other common causes of cystitis?
Bacteria from the bowel making its way to your urinary tract as a result of wiping your bottom from back to front
Not drinking enough water, or consuming sugary drinks which create a breeding ground for bacteria in your urine
Drinking alcohol or things that irritate the bladder wall and make it more sensitive to potential issues
Tight clothing and underwear ('Exerting pressure on the bladder which makes you wee more frequently can irritate it. The other thing that tight clothing does is create heat, friction and irritation which forms an environment that is perfect for bugs to be made and transferred,' says Dr Henderson.)
If you're dealing with other medical issues, these can play a part, too. ‘Most commonly diabetes – this is because diabetics secret a large amount of sugar in their urine, which creates a breeding ground for bacteria,' Dr Henderson adds.
How do I get rid of cystitis?
By far the best thing to do is drink water. 'Don’t drink litres and litres as that will cause stress to your bladder,' says Dr Henderson. 'But a greater amount dilutes the infected urine and irritants and if you’re passing a good amount when you wee, there’s going to be a flushing effect, so you get a much stronger stream.
'The argument is that you’re much more likely to flush out the bacteria than if you’re only passing a dribble.’
'Take anti-inflammatories, like paracetamol or ibuprofen. The two medications work much better together than individually. This will have an analgesic effect on the bladder and the lining', says Dr Henderson. To help you in the moment, hold a hot water bottle to your tummy to help relieve pain and stick to simple and plain foods and clear water.
Does cranberry juice actually do anything for cystitis?
You've likely heard that downing cranberry juice is helpful in the fight against cystitis. But the science doesn't back this DIY remedy up. Dr Henderson says: ‘The tables have turned on cranberry, and I don't advise my patients to drink it anymore. It was thought to be protective, however, there is now equivocal evidence to suggest that it doesn’t have benefits for fighting cystitis.'
Should I see my doctor if I have cystitis?
‘Unless you are acutely unwell, so, you've got a temperature, blood in your urine, or pain radiating up from the bladder up to the black, which is suggestive of a kidney infection, then self-treatment for up to three days is sensible,' says Dr Henderson.
'There's also a chance that cystitis could lead to a more serious kidney infection in some cases, so it's important to seek medical advice if your symptoms don't improve.’
Can cystitis go away on its own?
Often, mild cases of cystitis will go away on their own following at-home measures like drinking plenty of water and taking anti-inflammatories. However, that’s not always the case.
If your symptoms are severe or last longer than 3 days, it’s best to get checked out by your GP for a proper diagnosis and, if necessary, medication.
How is cystitis treated?
If a bout of cystitis doesn’t clear up on its own and over-the-counter methods don’t help to ease your symptoms, your GP might prescribe a course of antibiotics.
These often have a quick effect, and help to improve and relieve cystitis symptoms in a matter of days.
What happens if cystitis keeps coming back?
This is known as recurrent cystitis and is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.
If you are diagnosed with recurrent cystitis, your GP might prescribe stand-by antibiotics (which is a prescription you can take to a pharmacy whenever symptoms of cystitis show up and without needing to first consult your GP) or continuous antibiotics (where a course of antibiotics is taken for months as a method of prevention).
This kind of treatment is common for those who usually get cystitis after sex, so antibiotics can be taken following intercourse in a bid to prevent a bout of cystitis.
Are there any other medical conditions that can masquerade as cystitis?
'Most women have had one attack of cystitis in their life', says Dr Henderson. 'It’s very easy to identify.
'It’s very rare for an STI to masquerade, although some types, certainly gonorrhoea and some cases of chlamydia, can include cystitis as part of the problem. However in this instance, you wouldn’t get just Cystitis, somebody who has gonorrhoea would incur pelvic pain, they would probably have an offensive discharge and possibly vaginal bleeding.'
What is interstitial cystitis?
Cystitis can often be confused with interstitial cystitis, but it is a completely different condition. The only similarity is the name - the latter is a chronic relapsing and extremely painful condition which occurs when inflammation of the bladder is caused without bacterial infection.
So, how do you prevent cystitis?
Frustratingly, cystitis isn’t 100% preventable. There are, however, a number of measures you can take to lessen your risk of another episode.
Always wipe front to back, but especially after pooping. This will help to prevent the spread of bacteria.
Try emptying your bladder after sex to flush out bacteria.
Steer clear of perfumed soap and bubble bath, and opt for showers over baths as often as possible.
Wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing made from natural, breathable fibres.
Don’t hold your wee – go when you need to.
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