Cystitis, the bane of many a woman’s life, is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation in the bladder. When bacteria get into the bladder through the urethra, this can lead to cystitis, and while it usually affects adult women – around half of us at some point – men and children can sometimes get cystitis too. So what causes this painful and deeply unpleasant UTI – and can it be cured for good?
The symptoms of cystitis
Think you might have cystitis? Here are the telltale signs:
- A strong, persistent urge to urinate
- A painful burning sensation while urinating
- Passing frequent, small amounts of urine at a time
- Waking in the night to urinate
Sometimes this will be all it is, but other symptoms may also include:
- Cloudy or strong-smelling urine
- Pressure in the lower abdomen
- Pelvic discomfort
On the other hand, cystitis can sometimes be the result of a kidney infection. If any of the following symptoms accompany your UTI, contact your GP:
- Fever or chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in your back or side
- Blood in the urine
If you notice blood in your urine, or cystitis lasts for more than 48 hours, seek professional treatment.
What causes cystitis?
Most of the time, cystitis is the result of a bacterial infection, but it can also occur if the bladder is otherwise irritated. When bacteria from the skin or bowel find their way into the urethra, they can multiply and lead to cystitis. Because the urethra and the anus are much closer together and their urethras are much shorter, cystitis is much more common in women. For this reason, cystitis that occurs in men should always be checked by your GP.
So how do the bacteria find its way into the bladder in the first place? It is usually thought to be caused by one of the following:
- Having sex
- Using a tampon or urinary catheter
- Wiping from back to front after going to the toilet
- Using a contraceptive diaphragm
Your risk of contracting a UTI like cystitis is also higher if:
- You’re unable to empty your bladder
- You’re going through the menopause
- You have diabetes
However, cystitis is not always the result of a bacterial infection. Inflammation can also be caused by damage or irritation to the urethra – sometimes as a result of:
- Chemical irritants
- Friction from sex
- Using a catheter
- Bladder surgery
- Pelvic radiotherapy
- Female genital mutilation (FGM)
- Ketamine abuse
Treating a urine infection
So how does one treat a painful UTI like cystitis? If your symptoms are relatively mild, you’ll probably find that the infection clears by itself. However, if you’re pregnant, it’s worth seeking medical treatment regardless. In the meantime, you can manage the pain by:
- Taking painkillers
- Drinking water and cranberry juice
- Sitting in a warm bath
- Holding a hot water bottle on your tummy
- Avoiding sex
If the infection lasts for a day or more or is particularly painful, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics – usually a short course of nitrofurantoin (or if that's not suitable, trimethoprim). You should find that your infection clears up in a matter of days. Paracetamol or ibuprofen may also be recommended to bring your temperature down. Over-the-counter products like sodium citrate sachets are also an option and work by reducing the acidity of your urine. This will help to relieve some of the pain of a UTI, however, it will not treat the infection.
Contrary to popular belief, there is little evidence that drinking cranberry juice offers any benefit to women suffering from a bladder infection.
Cystitis in men
While cystitis mostly occurs in women, it can sometimes affect men and children as well. All men and children should see a doctor if they have cystitis since it can be more serious than for women. In men, cystitis can be a symptom of an underlying health condition, specifically prostate trouble or cancer. Cystitis is more likely to occur in men who have sex with other men.
For the most part, early treatment with resolve male cystitis effectively, but left untreated, it can quickly lead to kidney or prostate infections, so it’s best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Can it be cured for good?
Unfortunately, many women experience cystitis on frequent occasions – known as chronic cystitis. In cases like this, sufferers may need access to long-term treatment. While the odd case of mild cystitis doesn’t necessitate visiting the GP for most women, if it starts to become a regular problem, you should seek professional advice.
If you find you’re getting cystitis frequently, there are some measures you can take to try and prevent it from happening. Some are more effective than others – it depends on what’s causing the infections in the first place. These include:
- Not using perfumed bathing products
- Taking showers instead of baths
- Emptying your bladder regularly
- Emptying your bladder immediately after sex
- Staying well hydrated
- Always wiping from front to back after using the toilet
- Not using a diaphragm as contraception
- Avoiding tight trousers
- Avoiding underwear made from synthetic material, such as nylon
For more information on dealing with cystitis, visit our treatment and advice page and start a free online assessment for impartial help and advice.