At an early age, Victoria began suffering from one of the most common infections in the world – urinary tract infections (UTIs). Approximately one in five women will experience a UTI in their lifetime.
In school, Victoria often asked her teachers to go to the bathroom and teachers assumed she was just trying to get out of class because she asked to go to so often. But Victoria was not lying – she really did need to use the bathroom.
A distinct and vivid memory remains with Victoria till this day: In the third grade, she had an accident because her teacher refused to let her go to the bathroom. Her father came to pick her up from school, but this was not the last embarrassment or inconvenience caused by UTIs. Victoria, who asked that her full name not be used because of the personal nature of the health concern, is now 28 and has suffered from recurrent UTIs for nearly two decades. When she was younger, infections occurred two or three times a year.
According to Dr. Richard Baverstock, a Calgary urologist, who does not treat Victoria, recurrent urinary tract infections are defined as at least two UTIs in six months, or three in a year.
“This is an incredibly frustrating and common condition. I often say to people if you want to take away the most frustrating part of my practice, take away recurrent urinary tract infections because we haven’t made a tremendous improvement in my career or over the decades.”
See Michelle Huynh’s full video interview with Dr. Richard Baverstock here
Anatomically, urinary tract infections primarily affect women in comparison with men as the distance from the anus to the urethra is shorter for women.
As a server in the hospitality industry, Victoria found it difficult to work on busy nights because she simply was unable to go use the washroom. She’s also experienced UTIs while travelling with a window seat, constantly having to get up and get past two other passengers to use the washroom. In fitting room line-ups, she’s had to drop everything she wanted to try on to run to a bathroom.
“It’s frustrating. You feel like you can’t be too far from a bathroom.”
Treatment of Urinary Tract Infections
A urinary tract infection is an infection that affects the urinary system such as the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. The most common infections affect the bladder and urethra.
UTIs often cause an urgent and frequent need to urinate. Some people also experience extreme discomfort such as a burning sensation when urinating and pelvic pain. Antibiotics are prescribed while some patients try home remedies first.
Victoria recalls that her mom often tried to treat her UTIs with cranberry juice, cranberry pills and copious amounts of water before seeing a doctor.
“Historically, cranberries, specifically with the PAC molecule, have played a role in First Nations, even grandma’s tea recipe,” says Baverstock. “So we know that in a lab cranberry can bind up the P-fimbriae, the little arms of the E. coli, and stop it from adhering.”
Baverstock notes that clinical perspectives vary on the effectiveness of cranberry in preventing or alleviating symptoms of a UTI.
“I think the studies are really poor on cranberry because they’re natural products, they’re not funded by pharma and a lot of it is anecdotal. OceanSpray is sugar that touched a bit of a cranberry to make it very pleasant. If you chewed on a bag of cranberries you wouldn’t get very far because it’s intense. It’s not tasty at all. You need a lot of cranberry concentration in order to potentially play an important role.”
Victoria was actively engaged in dancing and gymnastics as a child. Her and her mom came to believe not showering immediately after a two hour dance class often led to her UTIs. When Victoria started to shower directly after dance class her symptoms subsided.
Still suffering from other bladder concerns including urinary incontinence, Victoria saw a urologist in 2014. But like many other sufferers of urinary tract infections she felt as if her concerns were dismissed by medical professionals.
“I went to the urologist once. It was honestly kind of a traumatic experience and I just honestly didn’t bother going back because it wasn’t a good experience for me, it was just a hassle.”
She adds, “I also kind of felt that the doctors weren’t listening to me as a lot of people feel with doctors. They were just like, ‘Oh just make sure to grab a shower after you workout, make sure you pee after you have sex, make sure to drink lots of water.’ It’s like, ‘Okay I have Google too.’”
Despite having tried all the common methods mentioned above, the urologist simply told Victoria to try those things again and come back in six-months time.
Originally from Newfoundland, Victoria never had a family doctor in Calgary.
Antibiotics would often work to treat her UTIs but because of the side-effects that accompanied the drug Victoria says she tries to limit usage.
“The past eight or so years they’ve definitely gotten worse but I’ve gotten better at coping with them as well. When I feel one coming on I have a better idea of how to take care of it on my own before I have to go to a doctor.”
Victoria still experiences UTIs about two to three times a year but she recalls a time in her life where she had them around once a month.
“I just wasn’t taking very good care of myself at that time. I wasn’t staying well hydrated. I wasn’t eating properly and just everything that goes in hand with taking care of yourself.”
Victoria also says that one of her recent investments at the beginning of the pandemic saved her life – a bidet. A bidet is a plumbing fixture that can be used to bathe the anal and external genital area. She ordered one off of Amazon and describes it as one of the best decisions she ever made.
“I’ve had one UTI since I got the bidet and that was when I flew to Newfoundland and had to quarantine in my parents basement for two weeks and they don’t have a bidet,” she says.
“This bidet changed my life.”
Quality of life for women with recurrent Urinary Tract Infections
Victoria is not alone in her struggle with UTIs. Melissa Kramer, founder of Live UTI Free, an online advocacy group, suffered from recurrent UTIs that became chronic for nearly five years.
Kramer began to interview women all over the world to see if their experience matched hers.
“I found it really, really difficult to find information and get care from providers. Most of my providers wanted to help but didn’t know how to so I was left on my own to navigate the issue… I realized that this journey is very difficult for many women in the same situation to try to find information you could rely on and most of the information online about recurrent UTIs is kind of non-scientific and very much about other people’s experiences,” says Kramer.
Kramer hopes that through Live UTI Free, her team will be able to advocate for the patient’s perspective to be taken into account including the burden of recurrent UTIs which is a chronic illness.
“We hear far too often that women are dismissed for their symptoms or told that it’s their anxiety or a mental health problem that is causing their physical symptoms.”
According to Victoria, the pain from her UTIs were manageable but definitely had an effect on her quality of life and intimacy.
“I found my UTIs, like a lot of us (do), started to get worse as I started to become sexually active.”
Victoria believes that women have been taught to deal with low, dull types of pain.
“Going through menstruation and everything you have really bad cramps. I know some women who have a hard time standing up straight when they’re on their periods because the pain can be so intense but they still get up and go to work for the most part. As women we’re more capable of dealing with pain because we deal with something like that basically every month.”
Victoria says she hasn’t completely given up on finding the underlying cause of her UTIs, and over the years has identified certain triggers which bring them on. Still, she remains skeptical of what the medicine can do.
“It just felt like every time I’ve gone to the doctor it just got looked over or swept under the rug… At a certain point you start to just give up and you stop asking because it’s exhausting. Nobody’s listening. Why even bother?”