Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Urinary Tract Infections

Q: Are all UTI’s caused by sex?

A: Thank you for this great question. The answer to your question is, “No, but…”
UTI stands for Urinary Tract Infection. It might also be called a bladder infection or cystitis. We see a lot of it at the Student Health Center, mostly in women. It is often related to sex, but indirectly, and not always. To explain, I need to subject you to a mini anatomy lesson. Bear with me.

The urinary tract is the system of organs that makes, collects and excretes urine. You have two kidneys, one on each side, located roughly behind your stomach. Each kidney makes urine and sends it down two tubes called ureters to your bladder, which collects it. Your bladder is located inside your body above your genitals. It is a soft, stretchy container with thin muscles in its walls. When your bladder is full, the urine is expelled from your body through another tube called the urethra. You control this process by consciously relaxing a muscle called a sphincter, which opens the urethra. Your bladder helps by contracting the muscles in its walls. The outside end of the urethra, called the meatus, is at the tip of the penis in men. In women, the meatus is on the vulva, between the vagina and the clitoris. This anatomical difference is why women get UTI’s more often than men, and why it is related to sex, as I will explain, after a mini microbiology lesson. Hang in there.

Urinary infections are caused by bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere. You think you’re clean? You probably are, but that does not mean you are bacteria-free. We share our personal space with more than 200 species of bacteria. In fact, there are ten times more bacteria in our intestines than there are cells in our entire body! Imagine that. Now, before you get all grossed out, know this. These little guys are your friends. They are called, as a group, “normal flora,” and they do lots of good. Good bacteria crowd out and kill bad bacteria. They also stimulate our immune system and help it develop, and some of the bacteria in our gut even make vitamins that we can use.

What kind of normal flora you have depends on your genetics, your age, sex, nutrition, stress and hygiene. We all have bacteria on our external surfaces and some internal surfaces, like nose, mouth, throat, intestines, and vagina. As long as they stay where they belong, there’s no trouble. But sometimes during sex, some of these critters can end up where they’re not wanted, like in the bladder. This happens more easily in women, due to the proximity of the meatus to the vagina and anus. Fluid, friction, moving body parts…use your imagination and you can see how it happens.

Sex is not the only way for bacteria to get near enough to the meatus to go in and cause a UTI, but it is the most common in college-aged people. One simple way to reduce sex-related UTIs is to urinate after sex. What this does is wash out any bacteria that have begun their sneaky trek up the urethra. Most of the time this works great. But if you find that you are experiencing burning when you urinate, blood in the urine, or the urge to go frequently, you might have a UTI. This goes for guys and gals. Please do not try to treat this yourself with cranberry juice, vitamin C or any other folk remedies. While some of these things can help you feel better, a true UTI is caused by bacteria, and the only way to kill bacteria is with an antibiotic.

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