I miss the days when I peed on sticks to test for pregnancy instead of bladder infections—a positive result was so much more exciting. When I discovered this latest infection my words to my husband were I really don’t have time for a bladder infection right now. But whether or not I have time for it, it has arrived.
One of the joys of having a spinal cord injury is the higher susceptibility to infections—If you didn’t read that with an inordinate amount of sarcasm, please go back and read it again. Bladder infections (UTIs) in particular, can become a big problem because of our reliance on catheters. It’s a catch-22 situation: I need catheters to empty my bladder and catheters increase the risk of infection. There’s no good solution. As it stands, I probably get 3-4 infections that require antibiotics a year, which—by SCI standards—is a low number. And while sometimes infections just happen, there are some precautionary measures I take to help decrease my chances of facing the dreaded UTI. Between my preventative measures, having an intimate knowledge of my symptoms for early detection and a few other tips and tricks, I at least have a sense of control over the uncontrollable.
If you’re a woman who has ever experienced a UTI, you’ve probably been told to always pee after sex to help flush any bacteria away from the urethra. When I was in rehab, I asked my doctor what I should do now—it seemed counter-intuitive to push a catheter and any residual bacteria into the urethra. Her response? Crickets. Nobody had ever asked her that before and she did not have an answer. (This also shows how little research has been done into women and sex after SCI—but that’s another story for another day). But while this particular conversation with my doctor wasn’t helpful, I have found some precautionary measures that have helped me:
I take a daily 500mg cranberry supplement. After I started taking these supplements, the frequency with which I contracted UTIs dropped significantly.
Some people will say this does nothing. But I take it just in case. The idea is that it helps keeps the bladder more acidic, limiting the growth of certain bacterias.
Clean cathing techniques
Always practice clean techniques when cathing. I always have hand sanitizer, baby wipes and use a new catheter (every time). If you are reusing catheters, make sure to thoroughly clean them in-between uses.
Cath before sex and clean up after
Pee before sex and do not catheter after sex. Use a fresh wipe or cloth to clean yourself up. It’s about as sexy as peeing after sex is but just go with it.
Another catch-22. Increasing your water intake will increase how much you catheter and then increase your chances for infection. Lame. I don’t drink enough water.
Even with all my well intended preventative measures—and that last one that I generally ignore—UTIs still happen. Knowing the symptoms usually helps me to detect it early. While I think almost everyone knows the most common signs of a UTI are that awful burning and urgency, I don’t actually get either of those things—hey, there’s got to be some perks to para-life. Some of my symptoms are typical but some look a little different:
If my bladder all of a sudden goes from well-behaved to leaking unexpectedly—I get suspicious. Nothing gets your attention like peeing yourself over and over. This is usually one of my very first symptoms.
Increased spasticity and neuropathic pain
My legs will spasm more frequently and my neuropathic pain (pain below my injury) will get worse. Both of these things are usually a sign that something is making my body unhappy.
If you can’t see through your urine, it’s not healthy—time to test.
Pain, nausea, exhaustion, fever
I grouped these ones together because they generally only show up if I’ve ignored the early symptoms. Pain is usually abdominal or in my lower and mid back. If I reach this point and still haven’t seen a doctor, that is where I need to go.
Like any infection, UTIs can become dangerous. Obviously that isn’t something I like to think about—nobody wants an infection that can’t be controlled. But it’s also an important reminder to make sure I don’t take unnecessary courses of antibiotics so as not to build up a resistence to them. Still, I only take my home remedies so far before seeing a doctor. And everyone is different so what works for me might not work for you. You need to get to know your body, trust your instincts and come up with your own system. I do have just two more tips to leave you with that have saved me time and stress on this SCI UTI journey.
I have an ongoing requisition at the lab to test my urine if I need to, but I also have chemstrips at home to dip in my urine when I suspect an infection. They are easy to read and then I know if I need to take my urine into the lab to be cultured.
Antibiotics for travel
Since it isn’t uncommon for me to get a UTI, I usually get a course of antibiotics to take with me when I travel. I bring them so that I am covered in the event this annoying SCI reality hits me on vacation. (I take my chemstrips too).
That’s it. Now excuse me while I go drink a gallon of cranberry juice.