Dr. Boyd Clary discusses anatomical differences and tips for prevention.
If you’ve ever felt that burning sensation and frequent need to urinate, you’re not alone. One of the most frequent causes for a sick visit to the OB/GYN is a urinary tract infection (UTI). A UTI occurs when bacteria enter the urethra and infect part of your urinary system.
UTIs are significantly more common in women than in men. In fact, women get UTIs up to 30 times more often than men. Why? As with most things, there is no one answer. From anatomical differences to hormonal changes and stages of a woman’s reproductive life cycle, a combination of factors contributes to women being more susceptible to UTIs than men. Let’s take a look.
1. Length of Urethra
The biggest reason is female anatomy, particularly with regards to the urethra, the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body. While the urethra is an exit for urine, it is also an entrance for bacteria to get into the urinary tract. The female urethra is much shorter in length in women than men. The average female urethra is 1-2 inches long compared to the male urethra which is 6 inches long. This is important when it comes to bacteria. Bacteria is seeded (or planted) at the urethra meatus (the opening of the urethra where urine comes out), which means it has a shorter distance to climb to infect the bladder in females than in males.
2. More Sensitive Skin
In addition, the external urethral meatus in women is mostly mucosa, moist tissue lining the inside of the vagina. This skin is thinner and more sensitive than most of the skin on the body, unlike in male counterparts. As a result, the female urethra is easier to traumatize and irritate. The irritated skin creates an environment for bacteria to potentially live and grow before climbing the short distance up the urethra to the bladder.
3. Placement of Urethra
All of this is compounded by the fact the female urethra is located closer to the rectum, which carries waste and bacteria such as E. coli. The number one cause of bladder infections is E. coli (approximately 51%).
4. Sexual Contact
The anatomy of women also makes them prone to getting UTIs after sex. Sexual contact can allow bacteria near the vagina to get into the urethra.
5. Specific Types of Contraception
Using spermicide or a diaphragm for birth control can also cause more frequent UTIs. Spermicide may cause vaginal irritation that can create an environment for bacteria to grow. Diaphragms are used with spermicide and can contribute to UTIs because they push against the urethra, making it more difficult to completely empty your bladder. The urine that remains is more likely to grow bacteria that can cause infection.
Higher susceptibility to UTIs also comes with going through menopause. As you age, and especially as estrogen levels drop during this time, your vaginal tissue becomes thinner and more prone to infection. Treatment with an estrogen cream or pills is being studied as a way to prevent UTIs in menopausal and postmenopausal women.
Pregnant women are also more prone to getting UTIs. Severe infections can cause problems for you and your baby. It’s important to call your obstetrician right away if you think you have a UTI so that you can treat the infection early.
Tips for Prevention
Hopefully, the discussion above has shown that even with perfect hygiene, women are simply more susceptible to bladder infections than men. But there are some hygiene tips you can follow to help prevent UTIs.
- Everyone knows that wiping back to front after urinating potentially can cause a UTI from bacteria like E. coli. But wiping front to back can also spread bacteria. Instead, try the blotting technique. Using clean folded toilet paper (preferably undyed and unscented), gently blot the exterior or top portion of the vagina, called the urethra. Blotting, unlike wiping, avoids bringing bacteria into the urethra.
- Baths also get blamed for UTIs. While dirty and soapy bath water can cause a UTI, there are techniques to help prevent it from happening. If you enjoy soaking in the tub, be sure to rinse off in the shower after your bath to prevent irritation and subsequent infections.
- Avoid douching and using other feminine hygiene products.
- Go to the bathroom after sex to help flush any bacteria away from the urethra.
- Wash in the front and back daily with soap and water.
- Drink a lot of water so that you urinate more frequently and continue to flush out bacteria.
- Fully empty your bladder when you feel the need to go to the bathroom.
Know that many women get UTIs at some point in their lifetime. If it happens to you, talk to your doctor about possible causes and treatment options. Some infections may clear on their own, but others require antibiotics. Discussing your medical history and lifestyle factors with your OB/GYN will help them find the best way to treat your symptoms.
If you are experiencing symptoms of a UTI, you may be eligible for our a paid clinical research study. Learn more and sign up here.