It's the kind of discomfort that could make you deny even the most urgent call of nature. You're praying the urge to go will pass just so you don't have to experience the searing pain of urination. You're convinced you've caught something lethal and your body is shutting down. Fear not, chances are that the razor-blade-feeling in your nether regions are not an indication of your imminent expiration, but are the signs and symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI). We know the pain can be unbearable, but the good news is it's not only fairly common, it's also treatable.
It's all right there in the name - a urinary tract infection is an infection of the urinary tract that can affect the kidneys, the ureters, bladder and urethra. Sometimes the infection has a specific name -- a bladder infection is called cystitis, while a kidney infection is called pyelonephritis and an infection in the urethra is called urethritis.
What to look out for
While the most common symptom of a UTI is a burning sensation when you urinate, you should look out for other symptoms of infection, including pain in the lower back or abdomen and a frequent and pressing need to urinate (even if very little comes out when you get to the toilet). Other symptoms include dark, strong-smelling urine that may contain traces of blood as lethargy and even fever -- this is an indication that the infection may have reached the kidneys.
Where does it come from?
Simply put, UTIs are caused by bacteria that have made it past your body's natural defence system. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), E.Coli bacteria -- usually found in the digestive system -- is a leading cause of UTIs. The bacteria enters the urethra and if the infection is left untreated, it could move up the urinary tract to the bladder and eventually the kidneys.
Are UTIs caused by too much sex?
Not exactly. The urethra, vagina and anus are all close together in female anatomy, and during foreplay or sex, E.Coli and other bacteria found in the digestive system can find its way to the urethra. So, no, "too much sex" does not cause UTIs, but each time you have sex there's an opportunity for bacteria to get into your urinary tract, where it might cause a UTI.
How serious can it get?
Generally, UTIs are easily treated if you act immediately. If not, the infection can lead to complications that include permanent kidney damage; recurrent UTIs; increased risk of pregnant women delivering premature babies; and in very serious cases, sepsis.
How do you treat it?
If you suspect you may have a UTI, start drinking plenty of water to help you body remove bacteria from your urinary tract. Cranberry juice has long been touted as the go-to home remedy for UTIs, but its effectiveness has recently come into question. An over-the-counter urinary alkaliser, like Citro Soda, can help to relieve symptoms by reducing the acidity of the urine and ease the burning sensation when urinating. Your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic to clear the infection.
Can UTIs become chronic?
According to the United States National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, each UTI a woman contracts makes her more susceptible to recurrent infection. They say although it's not unusual to have a couple years when you might have frequent infections, few women have frequent infections throughout their lives.
How can I avoid a UTI?
There are several ways to reduce your risk of infection, including drinking plenty of water and wiping from front to back whenever you've used the toilet. Emptying your bladder after sex (not before) is the key to reducing the risk of a UTI after sex as this cleans out the urinary tract, washing out any bacteria that may have found its way in while you were having fun.
HIV, unplanned pregnancies and rape are frequent concerns in South Africa. What we don't do enough of is talk about safe, healthy, consensual sex. This March, HuffPost SA looks at women and sex - what we want to know, what we wish we'd known earlier, and what those who come after us won't have to wonder about after all. You can find all the articles and blogs here or try some of these: