When bacteria get into the urinary tract and find an environment that helps them proliferate, a urinary tract infection occurs. The urinary tract consists of the urethra, the bladder, the ureters, and the kidneys. In men, the prostate is also part of the urinary tract, and in women, the fallopian tubes are affected by the urinary tract. The entire point of the urinary tract is to remove excess waste and water from the body, as well as to modulate temperature and control blood pressure. Infections, commonly called UTIs, can cause interruption in the normal function of the urinary tract, and in some cases, having frequent UTIs can lead to other complications. But can those same recurrent UTIs lead to infertility in men and women?
What happens with a UTI?
A UTI causes several potential problems for the patient, long before there are complications. First, the symptoms of a UTI are hard to manage and interrupt daily activities. These include:
- Frequent, urgent need to pee, often without satisfactory results
- Pain and burning when urinating
- Smelly, cloudy, or discolored pee
- Pressure or feeling as if the bladder is never empty
- Feeling tired or shaky, often with a low grade fever
- Pain in the lower back or pelvis
Many of these symptoms are related to urethritis, or the swelling and narrowing of the urethra due to inflammation. This is the body’s natural response to the infection but makes life more difficult for the patient.
Risk factors for UTIs
When it comes to developing UTIs, women are at much higher risk than men. In fact, about half of all women will experience at least one UTI in their lifetime, whereas only about five percent of men are likely to have one. This is mostly due to the female anatomy. Several aspects work against women in this. First, the urethra is much shorter in women than males, which means bacteria don’t have to travel as far to infect the bladder. Second, the opening of the urethra is much closer to the vagina and the anus in women than men, which makes them more susceptible to bacteria transfer in the first place. Also, when women go through menopause, their body chemistry changes, and the difference in hormones also makes them more susceptible to infection.
Other risk factors are not necessarily gender specific. Increased possibility of UTIs involve:
- Birth control. Using spermicide can irritate the urinary tract and can even spark an immune response that leads to greater chance of developing a UTI. Women should avoid using a diaphragm, which presses on the urethra and could cause a UTI.
- Sexual activity. Bacteria can spread easily during sex, especially for those who engage in anal sex. Also, having multiple partners, or having a partner who is non-monogamous, can make it more likely that foreign bacteria enters the body and causes a UTI.
- Blockage. Anything that blocks the normal flow of urine can lead to a UTI. That includes an enlarged prostate, kidney stones, or an abnormality in the urinary tract.
- Certain chronic illnesses. Patients with diabetes and other conditions that compromise the immune system are at higher risk for developing a UTI.
- Use of a catheter. Whether for a procedure in the hospital or other purposes, the use of a catheter causes irritation and inflammation that could increase the likelihood of a UTI.
What causes recurrent UTIs?
While there are several factors that could lead to chronic or recurrent UTIs, some are more common than others. Genetic predisposition due to abnormalities in the urinary tract could lead to this, but more commonly, a patient causes their own suffering. Recurrent UTIs often happen as a result of:
- Kidney stones, which are more frequent in people who don’t drink enough water.
- Inappropriate hygiene habits, including wiping from back to front, using scented deodorants and other products in the genital region, douching, and not cleansing before and after sex (as well as urinating immediately after intercourse).
- Not completing antibiotics as prescribed, which can leave active bacteria in the system as well as lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.
Recurrent UTIs and infertility
Assuring that UTIs are cleared up early and completely is essential to overall health, including fertility. In both men and women, certain circumstances caused or exacerbated by UTIs can lead to infertility.
In women, the proximity of all the organs plays a part in the risk of infertility caused by a UTI. The urethra and the bladder are located very close to both the vagina and the uterus. Therefore, an infection in the urinary tract can easily pass into the reproductive system. Sharing the bacteria, typically E. coli, that causes a UTI with the vagina, cervix, fallopian tubes, and uterus can cause something called pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID. This is one of the leading causes of infertility in women.
In men, there are similar conditions that can cause infertility, usually related to UTIs. The same way that UTIs can lead to chronic urethritis, they can also cause chronic prostatitis, which is inflammation of the prostate. The prostate is part of the male urinary tract, and it is prone to inflammation and enlargement. However, not treating the condition can lead to additional problems. Especially when prostatitis is caused by an almost imperceptible low grade infection that becomes chronic. The same bacteria that causes the UTI can easily transfer to the sex organs, and those infections, over time, destroy the ability to produce viable semen. The sperm cannot live, and if it does, they are slow moving and unable to reach an egg to fertilize it.
While it’s normal to have a UTI, it is certainly not normal to have a chronic or recurring UTI. If this is the case, a physician should help the patient dig deeper to determine the underlying cause of the condition so that it can be remedied. Constant UTIs can cause permanent damage in many ways, with one of the harshest and most permanent issues being infertility. Taking care of the body means noting anything unusual, especially symptoms of a UTI, and consulting a physician when they occur.