What Is Cystitis and How Do You Treat It?

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Cystitis is inflammation of the bladder and possibly the urethra that may occur with a urinary tract infection (UTI). Treatment options vary depending on the underlying cause but may include antibiotics for bacterial cystitis.

What is cystitis?

The bladder is a balloon-like organ in the lower abdomen, specifically the pelvis area. The bladder stretches as it collects and stores urine produced by the kidneys. The urethra is a tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the body. During urination, urine is eliminated from the bladder through the urethra.

Cystitis tends to be more common in females than in males because the urethra in females is shorter than in males. This makes it easier for bacteria to enter and infect the bladder. 

Cystitis symptoms can include feeling an urgent need to urinate, burning or pain during urination, and blood in the urine. Generally, treatment is effective for cystitis.

Without treatment, certain underlying causes of cystitis can result in serious complications, such as a kidney infection. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of cystitis. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce the risk of complications.

Sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male” and “female” to refer to a person’s sex assigned at birth.

Is cystitis the same as a urinary tract infection?

Older woman dressed in gray sitting on couch with hands on legs and eyes closed
Ksenia Krondo/Stocksy United

Cystitis is not the same as a UTI. Cystitis is inflammation that can occur due to a variety of causes, both infectious and noninfectious. However, a UTI is the most common cause of cystitis.

What are the different types of cystitis?

Doctors classify cystitis as uncomplicated or complicated. Uncomplicated cystitis refers to inflammation that occurs due to a UTI in an otherwise healthy person. Complicated cystitis is inflammation that occurs with other risk factors that can make someone more vulnerable to infection or can make treatment less effective.

Cystitis can be acute or interstitial. Acute cystitis most often occurs due to a bacterial infection in the urinary tract. Interstitial cystitis is a condition in which someone experiences pelvic pain and other urinary symptoms, but no sign of infection or other specific cause is present.

Learn more about the symptoms and possible causes of interstitial cystitis here.

Type of cystitisDescription
bacterial cystitissymptom of bacterial infection, often by Escherichia coli
radiation cystitispotential side effect of radiation therapy for cancer in the pelvic area
chemical cystitisresponse to chemical agents, including chemotherapy drugs, spermicides, soaps, or certain recreational drugs
foreign body cystitisresults from objects that come into contact with or become trapped in the bladder, such as catheters or catheter parts

What are the symptoms of cystitis?

The symptoms of cystitis result from irritation and inflammation of the bladder and urethra.

Symptoms of cystitis include:

It is possible to have bacteria present without experiencing any symptoms, which is a condition called asymptomatic bacteriuria. In most cases, treatment is not necessary. However, research does recommend that pregnant females and people with certain urologic conditions receive treatment for asymptomatic bacteriuria.

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life threatening condition

Bacterial cystitis can lead to potentially serious and even life threatening complications in some people, especially without treatment. These complications include kidney infection (pyelonephritis), kidney failure, and sepsis

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for any of these symptoms:

  • change in consciousness or mental status
  • high fever (higher than 101°F) and chills
  • inability to urinate
  • pain in the lower back on either side, around the location of the kidneys
  • producing no urine or only small amounts of dark or tea-colored urine

What causes cystitis?

A bladder infection causes most cases of cystitis.

Normally, the bladder, the urethra, and the rest of the urinary tract are sterile and contain no bacteria or other microorganisms. Cystitis can occur when bacteria enter the bladder from outside the body through the urethra. Bacteria can also come from other parts of the body and cause cystitis by traveling through the bloodstream to the bladder.

Other causes of cystitis include:

  • an inflamed or enlarged prostate
  • certain types of chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • irritation due to exposure of the genitals to perfumed soaps, genital deodorant sprays, or bubble baths

What are the risk factors for cystitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing cystitis.

Females who are sexually active, use diaphragms for birth control, or are past menopause have a higher likelihood of developing cystitis from a UTI.

Certain other groups are also at a higher risk of developing cystitis. These groups include people who:

  • are older
  • have a history of chronic conditions that affect the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, organ transplantation, and diabetes
  • have a history of kidney stones or kidney disease
  • have an indwelling catheter in their bladder
  • have had certain types of cancer treatments
  • use perfumed soaps, use genital deodorant sprays, or take bubble baths, which can all irritate the urethra
  • have structural abnormalities to their urinary tract anatomy
  • are pregnant

Reducing your risk of cystitis

Not all people who are at risk for cystitis will develop the condition, and not all people who develop cystitis have risk factors. You may be able to lower your risk of developing cystitis by:

  • avoiding perfumed soaps, genital deodorant sprays, and bubble baths, which can all irritate the urethra
  • completing your medication treatment for a bladder infection or UTI exactly as directed
  • drinking sufficient water and emptying the bladder frequently and completely
  • maintaining good genital hygiene through daily gentle washing of the exterior area with mild soap and water
  • avoiding douching or other internal cleaning of the genital area
  • maintaining, changing, and cleaning indwelling catheters as directed
  • urinating as soon as possible after sexual intercourse
  • wiping the genital area from front to back after urination or bowel movements

You may hear anecdotal advice to drink cranberry juice to help treat cystitis or a UTI. However, there is no scientific evidence that cranberry juice is effective in reducing symptoms.

How do doctors diagnose cystitis?

A doctor may only need to ask about your symptoms and do a quick urine test — a urinalysis — to diagnose the cause of your cystitis. A urinalysis shows whether there is blood, bacteria, or other abnormal substances in the urine. However, your doctor may need to rule out other possible causes of inflammation.

To diagnose the cause of cystitis, your doctor or healthcare professional will also ask you several questions, including:

  • What are your symptoms and when did they start?
  • Have you been diagnosed with a UTI or cystitis before?
  • Are you experiencing any other symptoms, such as pain around the kidney area in your lower back?
  • Are you taking any medications, including over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, vitamins, or supplements?
  • How much fluid do you drink in a day on average?
  • Do you have any other medical issues?

Following a physical exam, your doctor may request certain tests if they are not sure of the diagnosis or want to confirm it. These tests can include:

  • Urine cytology and culture: You will collect a urine sample into a sterile container following your doctor or nurse’s instructions. A lab analyzes the urine for any bacteria or other microorganisms.
  • Imaging tests of the abdomen: A CT scan and an ultrasound are common tests.
  • Cystoscopy: A radiologist inserts a long thin tube with a camera through the urethra to the bladder. This allows the doctor to examine inside the bladder. Doctors can also use cystoscopy to remove a small tissue sample for biopsy, which can diagnose some conditions. For example, interstitial cystitis may be diagnosed by ruling out other causes.
  • Kidney ultrasound: This test produces an image of the kidneys so the doctor can evaluate kidney structure.
  • Renal (kidney) scans: A radiologist injects a radioisotope, which is a chemical that can be seen with imaging, into the blood. The scan tracks the radioisotope movement so a radiologist can see how the kidneys are functioning.
  • Voiding cystourethrogram: After inserting a urinary catheter through the urethra to the bladder, a radiologist injects a contrast dye into the bladder. The dye allows the radiologist to see the bladder more clearly than standard imaging tests.

There is currently no specific test to diagnose interstitial cystitis. Instead, a doctor may use diagnostic tests to rule out all other possibilities before arriving at a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis.

Learn more about interstitial cystitis as a cause of bladder pain. 

What are the treatments for cystitis?

Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause of cystitis reduces the risk of developing serious complications, such as kidney infection and kidney failure. You can help cure cystitis by consistently following your treatment plan.

Home treatments for cystitis

If your symptoms are mild and started within the past 3 days, there are steps you can take for at-home care for cystitis. These include:

  • drinking plenty of water
  • urinating frequently
  • taking OTC pain medications or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil)
  • holding a hot water bottle near the affected area
  • avoiding sexual intercourse
  • wiping from front to back after going to the bathroom
  • washing the area around your genitals with mild, unscented soap

Medical treatment for cystitis

If symptoms persist or become worse, contact your primary care doctor or urologist for an appointment. They may prescribe treatments for cystitis, including an antibiotic medication, such as amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, or nitrofurantoin. The doctor may also prescribe certain medications they instill directly into the bladder to reduce inflammation.

What are the potential complications of cystitis?

Complications of an untreated UTI, a common underlying cause of cystitis, can be serious in some people. Those at risk include older people and people with weakened immune systems or chronic diseases.

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan your healthcare professional designs specifically for you.

Serious complications of cystitis include:

Summary

Cystitis is inflammation of the bladder, most often as the result of a bacterial infection. Other types of cystitis can occur due to radiation or chemotherapy for cancer, exposure to chemicals, or foreign objects coming into contact with bladder tissue.

Cystitis is more common in females, and risk factors include being sexually active, using spermicides or diaphragms, having a family history of UTI, and being past menopause.

Mild cystitis symptoms can go away with home treatment. For bacterial cystitis, a primary care doctor or urologist may prescribe antibiotics to treat the underlying infection.

It is important to seek prompt treatment for cystitis symptoms that persist or become worse in order to avoid complications such as a kidney infection or sepsis.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Feb 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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