For most women, a UTI is uncomfortable and an inconvenience. But for Emily Reynolds, what she thought was just a bout of cystitis turned into something far more dangerous…
If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had a urinary tract infection (UTI) before. UTIs are fairly common – according to NICE, around 10 to 20 percent of women will experience a urinary tract infection at some point in their life. Women are particularly prone to them, with incidence far lower for men – though Professor James Malone-Lee told The Guardian in 2017 that their UTIs are often “overlooked’. “But they are more common in women,” he said. “There’s a peak when women become sexually active, and then a further increase in later life.”
I got a urinary tract infection earlier this year – not really noteworthy enough for a whole article, I hear you thinking. But, it turns out, if you don’t seek treatment, your UTI could kill you – and mine nearly did.
I recognised my UTI symptoms almost immediately. I needed to urinate frequently and was unable to do so; when I did, I felt a burning sensation. My urine had a strange smell; I felt shaky and a little fuzzy, a feeling not unlike the onset of the flu. I did what I thought was the sensible thing: I drank a lot of water, I downed an entire carton of cranberry juice at my desk, and I bought some cystitis medicine from Boots. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, you may be surprised to hear, the problem was emphatically not solved. Untreated, other symptoms slowly started to emerge – none of which I associated with my UTI. My back started to hurt, which I put down to posture; I subsequently tweeted asking for recommendations for ergonomic office chairs and, in hindsight fairly astonishingly considering the circumstances, completed a half-hour long beginner’s yoga tutorial from YouTube that promised to banish my lower back pain. Reader: it did not banish my lower back pain.
As my temperature continued to rise, I begrudgingly realised I should probably see a doctor. By the time I got to my GP surgery, I was in significant pain, and after the briefest of examinations I was urged to get to A&E as soon as possible. I was put on a drip almost immediately, an IV that fed me intravenous vitamins, painkillers and antibiotics. It was evident pretty quickly why my over-the-counter cystitis granules hadn’t quite done the job.
A few hours later, the diagnosis was in: I had acute pyelonephritis, an infection of the kidney. And at this point, it was clear that hospital was the right place for me to be. My temperature was soaring, at one point reaching 105°, making me shake violently in my bed. I was vomiting; my heart rate was rising and rising. My blood oxygen levels were also low, making it hard for me to breathe, so I was given oxygen and a nebuliser. In total, I spent five days in hospital, during which time I had to be resuscitated: I had no idea that a UTI could genuinely nearly kill me.
It’s actually much more common than you might think, though. Alyssa Dweck, gynaecologist and author of The Complete A to Z for Your V: A Women’s Guide to Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Vagina, tells me that it’s “not that infrequent” for UTIs to develop into something much more serious.
“Listen to your body,” she says. “If you suffer painful urination, urgency or frequency in urination, blood in your urine, chills or fever, get urgent care pronto. A simple UTI can be treated easily with antibiotics – but untreated it can progress to a kidney infection or even full blown blood sepsis.”
Dweck agrees with the consensus that women are more prone to UTIs. “Just think of the term ‘honeymoon cystitis’,” she says. “There’s a reason for that – the thrusting of intercourse has potential to drag bacteria towards the urethra and increase risk of infection.”
Her advice? Do what I didn’t do – pee after sex. “If you’re prone to UTIs, take a concentrated cranberry supplement. Get out of wet clothes or bathing suits as soon as you can, stay well hydrated, and don’t hold it in for prolonged periods during the day.”
And if you’re having any other symptoms? Go to your GP straight away. It could save your life.