Women's Health Jan 22, 2024

Breaking the Silence Around UTIs

UT Health Austin urogynecologist addresses common concerns about urinary tract infections

Reviewed by: Mary Rieger, MD, MAS
Written by: Lauren Schneider

A woman seated on the toilet in discomfort.

Concerned you may have a urinary tract infection (UTI)? You are not alone. 50-70% of women will experience a UTI at some point in their lifetime. Still, it can be difficult to discuss such a personal subject with others. In the absence of open dialogue, myths and misconceptions about UTIs can take hold, affecting how women relate to their own bodies.

“There is no reason to be embarrassed about a UTI,” emphasizes Mary Rieger, MD, MS, a UT Health Austin female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeon who provides Urogynecology services through Women’s Health, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton.

As a urogynecologist, Dr. Rieger treats conditions affecting the female genitourinary tract, which includes the reproductive organs as well as the bladder, ureter, and urethra. Here, she tackles some of the most common questions women have about UTIs.

What is a UTI?

“A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection of the urinary tract, most often affecting the bladder or urethra,” says Dr. Rieger.

Symptoms of a UTI include:

  • Bladder pain
  • Burning or pain with urination
  • Increased urinary frequency or urgency

How are UTIs diagnosed and treated?

“A UTI can be diagnosed and treated by a primary care provider,” explains Dr. Rieger. “Urine testing that screens for pathological bacteria growth and inflammation is used to diagnose UTIs, and oral antibiotics are the most common treatment method. It is important to take your full course of antibiotics even if your UTI symptoms go away.”

Is a UTI a cause for concern?

“Most UTIs are very manageable. However, a more advanced infection of the urinary tract in which it has travelled to the kidneys requires immediate medical attention and should be addressed at an emergency department,” warns Dr. Rieger.

Signs of an advanced UTI include:

  • Fever
  • Inability to tolerate the oral antibiotic treatment regimen for UTI
  • Severe pain along the side of the abdomen
  • Vomiting

How can I prevent a UTI?

“Not only can proper intimate hygiene help you avoid UTIs and infections of the vagina and vulva, but good habits can also help prevent uncomfortable irritation,” shares Dr. Rieger.

Tips for good intimate hygiene:

  • Avoid douches and wipes; Wash the external genitalia only with gentle soap and water.
  • Avoid undergarments made of tight-fitting or synthetic fabrics; Remove wet swimsuits or exercise clothing as soon as possible.
  • Change tampons or pads regularly; Reusable products such as menstrual cups or period underwear should be cleaned thoroughly and often.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Urinate shortly after sexual activity.

“While feminine hygiene may help prevent infection, developing a UTI does not imply you have poor hygiene,” notes Dr. Rieger. “Patients who experience frequent UTIs often feel ashamed of their hygiene habits, but repeated infection can be a sign of an underlying health concern.”

“Additionally, when patients feel that they or their partner are doing something wrong to cause their recurrent UTI, this can cause psychological distress and even increased tension in intimate relationships,” adds Dr. Rieger.

What causes recurrent UTIs?

“Recurrent UTIs may be linked to genetic factors, immune differences, or an untreated medical condition,” notes Dr. Rieger. “Anyone who experiences 2 infections within 6 months or 3 infections within 12 months should seek medical attention to determine the underlying cause of their condition.”

Potential causes of recurrent UTIs may include:

  • Conditions that cause urinary retention/incomplete bladder emptying
    • Neurologic conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injury
    • Vaginal prolapse
  • Conditions that weaken the immune system
  • Kidney stones
  • Postmenopausal changes in the genitourinary tract

Explore answers to commonly asked questions about menopause provided by Women’s Health experts.

<br>How are recurrent UTIs treated?

“Treatment for recurrent UTIs depends on the condition’s underlying cause,” explains Dr. Rieger. “In many cases, the cause of a patient’s recurrent UTIs can be identified and treated by a primary care provider.”

“Some causes of recurrent UTI may require care from a specialist,” continues Dr. Rieger. “As a urogynecologist, I commonly treat patients who develop recurrent UTIs after menopause due to immune system changes in the genitourinary tract. A vaginal estrogen treatment can help restore these immune defense mechanisms.”

“For patients with difficulty emptying their bladder due to vaginal prolapse, I can correct their prolapse surgically or with a vaginal pessary, a removable device that supports the pelvic organs while it is in place,” adds Dr. Rieger.

What other conditions can a urogynecologist treat?

“Urogynecologists are board-certified, fellowship-trained gynecologists who undergo additional training in urogynecology and pelvic reconstructive surgery,” explains Dr. Rieger. “We specialize in correcting structural abnormalities of the female genitourinary tract, specifically pelvic floor disorders.”

Conditions treated by the Urogynecology care team include:

  • Anal/fecal incontinence
  • Cystocele
  • Fistulas
  • Frequent urinary tract infection
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Labial hypertrophy
  • Overactive bladder
  • Pelvic organ prolapse
  • Perineal descent
  • Post-hysterectomy prolapse
  • Rectocele
  • Urethral diverticulum
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Uterine prolapse

To learn more about Urogynecology services offered through Women’s Health, visit here.

For more information about Women’s Health, visit here

About the Partnership Between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton

The collaboration between UT Health Austin and Ascension brings together medical professionals, medical school learners, and researchers who are all part of the integrated mission of transforming healthcare delivery and redesigning the academic health environment to better serve society. This collaboration allows highly specialized providers who are at the forefront of the latest research, diagnostic, and technological developments to build an integrated system of care that is a collaborative resource for clinicians and their patients.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.