The Case of Cystitis: What You Need to Know

According to doctors, about half of women have at least one bout of cystitis in their lives. 

When you see a medical condition that ends in “-itis,” you know that some part of your body is inflamed. With cystitis, it’s your bladder. And it lets you know about it with constant trips to the bathroom that often hurt and never quite give you relief.

Cystitis (pronounced sis-TIE-tis) is the medical term for inflammation of the bladder. It is the most common type of urinary tract infection (UTI). When you have one, bacteria in your bladder cause it to swell and get irritated, which leads to symptoms like the urge to pee way more often than normal.

According to doctors, about half of women have at least one bout of cystitis in their lives. One in three women will have had cystitis by the age of 24. About 4 out of 100 pregnant women develop cystitis.

Most infections are thought to occur when bacteria that live harmlessly in the bowel or on the skin get into the bladder through the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of your body) and start to multiply.

Usually, bacteria such as E. coli are to blame. They normally live on your skin and in your intestines, and they’re not a problem. But if they get into the urethra, which is the tube that carries pee out of your body, bacteria can end up in your bladder and cause issues.

Although cystitis is not normally a serious condition, it can be uncomfortable and lead to complications if left untreated. Below, we provide you some of the most important facts about cystitis, so that you may recognize it as fast as possible and take appropriate measures to treat this unpleasant condition.

Why women?

Cystitis is much more common in women than men, probably because the anus (back passage) is closer to the urethra in women, and the urethra is much shorter. In both men and women, the urology system is the part of the body that deals with urination.

It doesn't take a doctor to know that the urology-related anatomy of men and women look very different, at least from the outside. Health specialists will tell you that In the human male, the urethra is about 8 inches (20 cm) long. In males, the urethra provides an exit for urine as well as semen during ejaculation.

Meanwhile, in women, the urethra is about 1.9 inches (4.8 cm) to 2 inches (5.1 cm) long and exits the body between the clitoris and the vagina. Which basically means that in us women, the bladder sits on top of the front wall of the vagina.

As women age, the bladder can fall or slip out of place because the vaginal wall may sag with time. Childbirth also loosens the vaginal wall.

For example, in some women, the bladder may prolapse, meaning it is no longer supported and falls into the vagina. As expected, this condition does not affect men, because this is a problem unique to female anatomy.

All of that brings us to the conclusion that in women, the urethra is about 1.5-inches long, about 10 times shorter than in men. This is one reason women are more affected by urinary tract infections—the bacteria have a much shorter distance to travel.

Under the highest risk

Experts say that risk factors for cystitis in women include sexual intercourse, use of contraceptive diaphragms and, in postmenopausal women, mechanical and/or physiologic factors that affect bladder emptying, such as cystocele or atrophic vaginitis.

Among otherwise healthy women, risk factors for cystitis include recent sexual intercourse and a history of urinary tract infections. Use of spermicide-coated condoms, spermicides alone are also associated with an increased cystitis risk.

It’s not as common, but you can also get cystitis from chemicals in personal care products, such as bubble baths and soaps, chemotherapy drugs, and damage from bladder surgery or a catheter – a tube that helps empty pee from your bladder.

Gynecologists report that, sadly, around one in five women who have had cystitis will get it again. Cystitis can occur at any age, but it is more common in pregnant women, sexually active women, women with diabetes, and women who have been through the menopause.

Some conditions cause symptoms that may be mistaken for cystitis – for example, vaginal thrush or genital herpes. Also, soaps, deodorants, bubble baths, etc, may irritate your genital area and cause mild pain when you pass urine.

How to recognize it

The symptoms of Cystitis can also be caused by other conditions, so it's important to see a sexual health clinician or your GP the first time you have any of these symptoms.

The most common health conditions that suggest you have cystitis are the following:

  • a need to urinate urgently and often, but only passing a small amount;
  • pain or stinging when you urinate;
  • pain in the bladder;
  • urine that's dark, cloudy or strong smelling;
  • traces of blood in your urine;
  • pain low in your belly (directly above the pubic bone), or in the lower back or abdomen.
  • feeling unwell, weak, or feverish.

You can sometimes have cystitis but have no symptoms. This is particularly common if you’re older.

Typically, cystitis is more annoying than it is serious, and it’s treated with antibiotics. But bacteria can travel from the bladder to the kidneys and cause more severe problems, so it’s important to treat it right away.

Although most women will not experience any long term effects, some women will experience recurring cystitis, and it can progress to the kidneys if left untreated and become pyelonephritis (kidney infection). This can be serious but can be treated with antibiotics.

Your doctor or nurse may do a simple dipstick test on a urine sample to check for cystitis. This can detect changes in the urine that may indicate an infection. It is fairly reliable and usually, no further test is needed.

If the infection does not improve with treatment or improves but then returns quickly, you will be asked to do a midstream specimen of urine (MSU). This is then sent to the laboratory to confirm the diagnosis and to find out which germ (bacterium) is causing the infection.

Often, the cause is a bladder infection and that’s all the testing you need.

How to prevent it

In some women, one bout of cystitis allows their urinary system to build up a type of immunity and further bouts are rare. For other women, cystitis can occur regularly.

Although not always backed up by research, some women have found that useful suggestions include:

  • Go to the toilet to pass urine as soon as you feel the urge, rather than holding on.
  • Drink plenty of water every day to flush your urinary system.
  • Wipe yourself from front to back (urethra to anus) after going to the toilet.
  • Wash your genitals before sex and encourage your partner to do the same.
  • Urinate after sex.
  • Wear cotton rather than nylon underwear.
  • Avoid wearing nylon pantyhose, tight pants or tight jeans.
  • Don’t use perfumed soaps, talcum powder or any type of deodorant around your genitals.
  • Avoid bubble baths.
  • Treat vaginal infections such as thrush or trichomoniasis promptly, since these organisms can encourage cystitis.

Actually, there is no need to freak out – most cases of mild cystitis will resolve itself within a few days. But remember, any cystitis that lasts more than 4 days should be discussed with a doctor.

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