Being sick is never enjoyable, but some illnesses tend to be worse than others. One that can be particularly nasty is a urinary tract infection (more commonly called a UTI). Few things are more frustrating than constantly feeling like you have to pee... but not really being able to. The symptoms of UTIs are usually painful, aggravating, and they can really mess up any plans you might have. More importantly, UTIs can be dangerous, and if left untreated, can lead to some serious issues. On top of that, there's one thing you didn't know about UTIs — and that's that they can come with silent symptoms, making them even more dangerous.
A UTI is exactly what it sounds like: an infection in the urinary tract system, including the kidneys, bladder, and urethra. Most of the time, UTIs occur in the lower urinary tract. They are caused by bacteria that gets into the urethra, usually from the rectal area, but this can vary. You're probably already aware of the usual symptoms that come along with a UTI: these can include a burning sensation when you urinate, feeling like you have to urinate immediately even if nothing or just a little comes out, pain or pressure in your lower back or stomach, bloody or strong-smelling urine, feeling tired or shaky, and in some cases, even a fever. If you feel any of these things, you would hopefully know that you probably have a UTI, then head to a doctor for medication to get better. Problem (probably) solved!
But what if you don't feel any of those things? It is totally possible to have a UTI without feeling the usual symptoms, especially if you're an older woman. UTIs can and often do have really subtle symptoms that don't include the burning and pain often associated with the infection. According to Harvard Medical School's Harvard Health Publishing, this is common in older women — "some experts think that is because the symptoms of a UTI are actually caused by the immune system's fight against the infection, and the immune systems of older people may not fight as fiercely," — but, theoretically, an asymptomatic UTI could affect anyone who is immunocompromised. Seemingly unrelated symptoms, the journal reported, range from the following:
- loss of appetite
Of course, these are all symptoms of many other conditions and infections — so without the classic urinary tract symptoms like burning or pain, it's easy to overlook a UTI as the culprit. This is known as a silent UTI, and it's where things can get dangerous; after all, if a UTI isn't caught early, the infection won't be treated accordingly. According to Harvard Health Publishing, "A lack of symptoms may result in a UTI going untreated and then spreading to the kidneys, and then the bloodstream — a potentially fatal condition."
Of course, you can't always assume exhaustion means you have a silent UTI, or you'd be spending all of your time at the doctor. Instead, if you feel any of the aforementioned symptoms and other test results aren't coming up with any reason for them, ask your doctor to check you for a UTI.
You can also work at preventing UTIs to begin with. According to Harvard Health Publishing, both Dr. George Flesh, director of urogynecology and pelvic reconstructive surgery for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and Dr. Suzanne Salamon, a geriatrician and instructor at Harvard Medical School, recommend drinking more fluids throughout each day to flush out urine and bacteria. You should always make sure you pee after having intercourse — right away, not an hour later. If you know you're prone to UTIs, Dr. Flesh says to try vaginal estrogen cream, saying, "It is the most effective preventive treatment, resulting in 70 percent to 90 percent fewer infections."
Remember: UTIs aren't just annoying, they can also be very dangerous. Don't let a silent UTI lead to a serious kidney infection or worse. Stay on top of your health!