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Seeking treatment without stigma

How to treat UTIs in today’s social climate

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Last May, I found myself in the ER. Shortly before I checked in, I had painful urination and felt the need to go every few minutes. I had what is considered the standard symptoms of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Within an hour, I began urinating copious amounts of blood. It was time to seek medical attention.

Blood in urine is a tell-tale sign that you may have a UTI. I was aware of this, as was my doctor and nurse. I expected them to take my urine sample and give me a prescription for antibiotics. As a part of my diagnosis, my doctor asked me when my last period was. I told him it had ended a few days ago. With that information, he told me that the blood I was seeing was residual period blood and attempted to discharge me.

I knew the difference between peeing when on my period and what I was experiencing. I was hurt that he was going to send me home without a way to treat my other symptoms. My nurse stepped in and advocated for me. After my doctor had left the room, she informed me that he was disregarding my test results and that I did, in fact, have a UTI. My nurse promptly went to a different doctor and explained the situation. Within minutes, I had a small bottle of Macrobid and within hours, my symptoms went away.

On my way out, my nurse pulled me aside. “Always listen to your body because you know it best. If something doesn’t feel right, it usually isn’t,” she said.

Listen to your body. It sounds so simple but it’s valuable advice.

It’s becoming more difficult to treat something as simple as an infection. Maybe it’s the stigma that’s wrapped around UTIs, and that’s why it’s treated like an STD. People assume that UTIs are the result of sex. Even my mother, a medical professional, asked who I had been “smushing” after she heard about my UTI.

But here’s the thing: UTIs are incredibly common because you can contract them in really simple ways. If you’re an athlete, sweaty clothes can be the reason. Sometimes this is due to a flora imbalance down there. Your birth control can put you at risk and if you wipe from back to front, you’re really prone to getting an infection.

So what is a UTI? It’s an infection that can affect your kidneys, bladder, and urethra and 90 percent of them are caused by E. coli bacteria getting into places it shouldn’t. A higher percentage of people with vaginas contract UTIs because our urethras are shorter than those of people with penises. So if some E. coli enter our system, it doesn’t have to go very far before it begins causing damage.

UTIs have some pretty recognizable symptoms. These include the constant “need to go,” a burning sensation, cloudy or bloody urine, and pelvic or back pain. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. Untreated UTIs can cause long-term complications.

But there’s a catch. Say you had these symptoms and your doctor prescribed you some antibiotics. As of fall 2018, Nitrofurantoin, the most common drug used to treat UTIs, is now 400 percent more expensive than it used to be.

Nirmal Mulye, president of Nostrum Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures Nitrofurantoin, said to the Financial Times, "I think it is a moral requirement to make money when you can, to sell the product for the highest price."

The World Health Organization listed Nitrofurantoin as an “essential” medicine for treating UTIs.

So that little vial of antibiotics that you need? It now costs more than $2,300 instead of $500. Luckily, there are ways around this and to prevent contracting future UTIs.

First, there’s Good Rx. I would recommend bookmarking the website on your phone or laptop and worshipping it religiously. This website hands out coupons than you can use at any pharmacy. There are discounts for just about every prescription out there. With Good Rx, your Nitrofurantoin only costs around $17.

If you’re a few hours or days away from your doctor’s appointment and you’re feeling discomfort, head over to a drugstore and buy Azo. This over-the-counter drug is a symptom suppressant and relieves pain and urgency within an hour. However, Azo is a symptom reliever and does not treat the infection. Do still seek medical attention, a combination of antibiotics and Azo will have you feeling much more comfortable. If you take Azo, don’t be alarmed that your pee is suddenly dark orange. Azo tablets are rust-colored and the medication discolors your urine.

You’ve probably heard about antibiotics hurting your natural bacteria. This is true; antibiotics can wipe out your digestive tract bacteria and it can also hurt your natural flora. Women who are prone to UTIs and constantly take antibiotics can also get yeast infections due to an imbalance. If you’re taking antibiotics, also incorporate certain foods in your diet. Essentially, eat for your vagina. These foods include yogurt, almonds, fresh fruit and vegetables, and avocados.

For myself, that first trip to the ER wouldn’t be my last. Every month for the next five months, I was visiting my doctor or going to Zoom+Care clinics. From my few months of hell, I learned that some things we know about UTI care are false. First of all, cranberry juice and supplements don’t actually provide any benefits. If you have a UTI, just make sure to drink plenty of fluids instead.

Second, cranberry supplements are expensive and come in large, hard-to-swallow pills. If you want to take a preventative supplement, opt for D-Mannose instead. The molecule is a type of sugar that your body urinates out when consumed in large quantities. As the D-Mannose leaves your system, it latches onto any E. coli that may be present in your urethra and gets excreted out. Think of the supplement like drain cleaner, it’s cleaning foreign substances from your urinary tract.

UTIs are annoying to deal with and it’s even more aggravating that companies and social stigma make them harder to treat. However, medicine is great. It’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. Just within the past 20 years, medicine and science have evolved in ways society never could have predicted.

But what hinders medicine is humankind. As a society, we are filled with stigma and prejudice, and a single opinion can easily set back years of hard work. Until we can fix these issues, we just have to be clever with the tools we still have, advocate for ourselves, and listen to our bodies.

Reach writer Christine McManigal at Twitter: @clmcman

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