The woman with dysuria
The Woman with Dysuria
Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School North Chicago, Illinois
Bacterial cystitis is the most common bacterial infection occurring in women. Thirty
percent of women will experience at least one episode of cystitis during their lifetime. About one third of patients presenting with symptoms of cystitis have upper urinary
tract infections. A careful history to identify risk factors for subclinical pyelonephritis is important. Symptoms of chronic cystitis accompanied by sterile urine without pyuria may represent interstitial cystitis. Dysuria may also be the principal complaint
of women with vaginitis (infectious, atrophic or chemical) or urethritis. A stepwise diagnostic approach, accompanied by inexpensive office laboratory testing, is usually
sufficient to determine the cause of dysuria. An appropriate starting point in identifying the cause of dysuria is to attempt to
classify the woman's symptoms by the specific anatomic site thought to be responsible. Table 1 lists disorders associated with symptoms of dysuria and their
characteristic laboratory and physical findings.
Differential Diagnosis of Women with Dysuria
myalgias, neck active; may or pubic area, but Viral culture
Dysuria with frequency and urgency suggests cystitis.1 Women usually sense
internal discomfort (located in the urethra and bladder) as opposed to external discomfort such as the labial irritation associated with vaginitis. Hematuria is
common with urinary tract infections and is unlikely to occur with other potential etiologies.1 Sexual intercourse is associated with many causes of dysuria, but
women with postcoital cystitis typically develop symptoms within a few days of intercourse, whereas women with urethritis develop symptoms one to two weeks
later and women with vaginitis develop symptoms from weeks to months later. A history of recurrent urinary tract infections, use of a spermicide and diaphragm, and a higher frequency of intercourse within the previous week increases the risk for a
urinary tract infection.2 Only about 15 to 20 percent of women with acute cystitis have suprapubic pain.1 Rarely, women with cystitis mention lower back pain or have
a low-grade fever. Associated vaginal discharge suggests some type of vaginitis, although patients with
urethritis can atypically have a discharge as well. Perimenstrual exacerbation of symptoms points to candidal or Trichomonas vaginitis. Dyspareunia and the
sensation of the dysuria being external are typical of vaginitis. Dysuria associated with symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease, occurring about one to two weeks after intercourse or noted just at the start of urination, suggests urethritis.3
Associated fever, myalgia and headache suggest acute pyelonephritis or primary genital herpes as the cause of dysuria. Nausea and emesis also typically accompany
acute pyelonephritis. Bladder irritation from a distal urethral stone, compression from an adnexal mass, and radiation or chemical exposure can also produce dysuria.
The physical examination is unremarkable in patients with cystitis, except in the 15 to 20 percent of patients who have suprapubic tenderness. Fever (greater than 38.5°C [101.3°F]), costovertebral angle tenderness or upper abdominal tenderness
to deep palpation suggest acute pyelonephritis. Women with candidal or Trichomonas vaginitis may have vaginal discharge. Satellite vaginal pustules are sometimes
present in patients with vaginal candidiasis, and grouped painful vesicles and tender inguinal adenopathy may be present in patients with genital herpes.
If symptoms of cystitis are present, the finding of more
than 102 colony-forming units per mL indicates true
The most sensitive laboratory indicator for urinary tract infections is pyuria. A
positive leukocyte esterase dipstick test is 75 to 95 percent sensitive in detecting
pyuria secondary to infection.4 If no vaginal contamination occurs during collection, vaginitis does not produce pyuria. The presence of white blood cell casts suggests acute pyelonephritis. Bacteriuria and urine nitrite are also frequently present but are
less sensitive indicators of urinary tract infection. Most of the subtypes of the known bacterial pathogens (with the exception of Staphylococcus saprophyticus and
Enterococcus) can convert urinary nitrate to nitrite. Positive nitrite is over 90 percent specific for urinary tract infections, but sensitivity is usually only about 30 percent.5
This is secondary to the six-hour incubation time needed. Sensitivity increases to 60 percent with first-voided morning urine samples.
Women with uncomplicated cystitis who are not pregnant do not usually require a urine culture. However, if a culture is performed and symptoms of cystitis are
present, the finding of greater than 102 colony-forming units per mL of urine in a promptly cultured specimen is significant.
Vaginal Smears/pH Testing
Increased vaginal pH is characteristic of trichomoniasis and bacterial vaginosis; however, bacterial vaginosis does not typically produce dysuria. The replacement of vaginal lactobacillus with coliform bacteria also increases pH. This may occur in
women with recurrent urinary tract infections. Potassium hydroxide and normal saline vaginal smears may reveal mycelia and motile trichomonads in patients with
suspected vaginitis. Most women with urethritis are found to have greater than five white blood cells per high-power field on urethral smear.
Acute cystitis is the most common bacterial infection occurring in women. Of the more than 30 percent of women who will experience at least one episode of cystitis in their lifetime, 20 percent will have recurrent cystitis.3
Pathogenesis. The shorter urethra in women makes the ascension of bacteria more likely, especially during sexual intercourse. Urine is a natural bactericide with a low
pH and a high osmolarity and urea content. Normal urine flow and voiding physically expel bacteria from the urinary tract. A protective mucin coating also inhibits the
adherence of bacteria. Women normally have lactobacillus colonization of the vaginal mucosa. Vaginal secretions have a lower pH that inhibits coliform bacteria.
Conditions That Cause an Increased Incidence of Urinary
Tract Infections in Women
ureterovesical junction; anomalies of tract
anatomy/function such as cystocele, cystic
(especially beta-lactambased) alter vaginal
flora; postmenopausal status is associated
with a decrease in vaginal lactobacillus
Urinary tract instrumentation, including
Some patients experience the disruption of some of these defense mechanisms. The conditions that increase the incidence of disruptions are listed in Table 2. Some
women have genetically determined receptors on their uroepithelial cells that allow attachment by the glycolipid fimbriae of many fimbriated subtypes of bacteria.
Women with these receptors who do not have mucosal secretion of a fucosyltransferase enzyme (which helps to block bacterial adherence) are more likely
to have the lactobacillus in their vaginal mucosa replaced with Escherichia coli and other coliforms from their rectum and to have more frequent episodes of cystitis.
Since these uroepithelial receptors are also found in the upper urinary tract, these women are also more prone to pyelonephritis.6,7 Table 3 lists the likely bacterial
pathogens in uncomplicated and complicated urinary tract infections.
Incidence of Bacterial Pathogens in Lower Urinary Tract
*--Includes Serratia, Streptococcus, Acinetobacter and
Citrobacter species. Adapted with permission from Sweet RL, Gibbs RS. Infectious diseases of the female genital tract. 3d ed. Baltimore: Williams
Treatment. Many episodes of bacterial cystitis resolve without treatment. The consumption of cranberry juice decreases the ability of the bacteria to attach to
uroepithelial cells.8 Antibiotics hasten the resolution of symptoms and prevent the infection from spreading into the upper urinary tract. Adult nongravida women with
uncomplicated cystitis may be treated empirically with a three-day course of antibiotics based on their clinical presentation and evidence of pyuria. Urine culture
is not necessary in these women but should be performed if there is no pyuria despite a clinical picture of cystitis.
Many antibiotics are effective in the treatment of cystitis, and most achieve high concentrations in the urine. Selection of the antibiotic should be determined by side effect profiles, drug interactions, cost and teratogenic effects. Drugs and dosages for
antibiotic therapy for uncomplicated cystitis in women are listed in Table 4. Although fluroquinolones have been proved to be effective for the treatment of uncomplicated
cystitis, their use should be avoided because of cost and potential teratogenic effects. About 30 percent of the bacteria that cause cystitis are currently resistant to
amoxicillin or sulfamethoxazole. Only 15 to 20 percent of bacteria are resistant to nitrofurantoin (Macrobid, Macrodantin), and 10 to 15 percent are resistant to
trimethoprim (Trimpex) or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra). Recurrent infections are usually reinfections separated by an asymptomatic interval
of at least one month's duration. They are usually caused by vaginal and rectal colonization with uropathogens. Anatomic abnormalities in young women with
recurrent cystitis are rare.9 The diffusion of trimethoprim into vaginal fluid to clear vaginal colonization of uropathogens is a key factor in its success in shorter-course
therapy.10 Complicated Urinary Tract Infections. Complicated urinary tract infections are defined as those occurring in patients with anatomically or functionally abnormal urinary
tracts, or in patients who are immunocompromised or have iatrogenic infections. Clinical recognition of complicated urinary tract infections is important because these
patients are more likely to harbor resistant organisms (Table 3). Therapy consists of broader spectrum agents such as fluroquinolones. Cystitis should be treated for one
week. Upper urinary tract infections should be treated for two weeks. A urine culture should be obtained to confirm sensitivity.
Empiric Oral Antibiotic Therapy for Uncomplicated
Cystitis in Women
NOTE: Sulfamethoxazole is contraindicated in pregnant women
near term. Sulfamethoxazole and nitrofurantoin are contraindicated in patients with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency. Trimethoprim is contraindicated in
patients with folate deficiency. Nitrofurantoin has not been proved as effective as trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or trimethoprim in three-day clinical trials.
Subclinical Pyelonephritis Appropriately named, subclinical pyelonephritis represents a diagnostic challenge to clinicians, because although patients with the condition have renal parenchymal
involvement, they experience only the symptoms of cystitis.11 Estimates based on bladder washout studies show that 30 percent of women presenting with symptoms
of cystitis actually have subclinical pyelonephritis.12 This finding has important therapeutic sequelae: infections are more difficult to eradicate and require a two-
week course of antibiotic therapy compared with the usual three-day course for cystitis,13,14 and since the renal parenchyma is involved, organism identification and confirmation of sensitivity are important.
Subclinical pyelonephritis is distinguished from cystitis
on the basis of risk factors and requires treatment with a
two-week course of a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
A urine culture and sensitivity should be obtained when an upper urinary tract infection is suspected based on clinical symptoms or risk factors. Table 5 lists the identifiable factors that increase a patient's risk for subclinical pyelonephritis. The
clinician must suspect subclinical pyelonephritis in any patient with symptoms of cystitis who has one or more of the risk factors listed in Table 5. The physician
should be aware that complicated urinary tract infections and subclinical pyelonephritis are not mutually exclusive and have overlapping risk factors. Patients
with symptoms of cystitis and one or more risk factors for subclinical pyelonephritis should be treated for both conditions with empiric broader-spectrum antibiotics for
two weeks. Most patients with subclinical pyelonephritis tend to have bacterial counts greater than 105 units per mL on quantitative culture, but the specificity of this culture is not
high enough to be clinically useful. Many laboratory tests, such as the antibody-coated bacteria assay and erythrocyte sedimentation rates, have been used to help
identify patients with subclinical pyelonephritis, but the specificity of these tests is too poor to make them clinically useful. Renal cortical scintigraphy has an 86 percent
accuracy rate in distinguishing upper tract infections.15 Patients with upper tract involvement will show a focal asymmetric uptake. Treatment, however, is usually
based on the presence of risk factors and is usually determined without using imaging studies.
Risk Factors for Subclinical Pyelonephritis in Women
Symptoms present for more than one week before seeking
Pregnancy Anatomic anomaly of the urinary tract
Vesicoureteral reflux Relapse of symptoms within three days of treatment for acute
cystitis Ureteral obstruction History of acute pyelonephritis within one year Adapted with permission from Johnson CC. Definitions, classification and clinical presentation of urinary tract infection.
Interstitial cystitis is an inflammatory condition of the bladder of unknown etiology.
It is much more common than was previously believed, affecting an estimated 450,000 persons in the United States.16 Ninety percent of affected patients are
women. Some experts believe that men with prostatodynia, especially those with symptoms of cystitis, may actually have interstitial cystitis.17 Adding these men to
the number of affected patients decreases the female predominance. Epidemiologic studies have shown that patients with interstitial cystitis have had their symptoms for an average of 4.5 years before they are correctly diagnosed, and
that the median age of afflicted patients is 40 years (about one quarter of these patients are less than 30 years old) at the time of diagnosis. No clear genetic
predisposition has been proved, but studies have revealed that about 15 percent of patients are of Jewish origin.18 Patients with interstitial cystitis are more likely to
have had urinary tract infections both as adults and as children. The etiology of interstitial cystitis remains unclear. Many efforts have been made,
without success, to culture a causative organism. In past decades, this disorder was considered to be a manifestation of an underlying psychiatric disorder and, indeed,
many patients with this condition reported feelings of depression and anxiety, and a history of psychiatric care.18 Most authorities now believe that, at least in most patients, these feelings represent an understandable response to their disorder and
are not the cause of it. Theories abound as to the true cause of interstitial cystitis. Presently, the most popular theory is that alterations occur in the glycosaminoglycan
mucous layer, possibly in response to a previous bacterial urinary tract infection, allowing solutes in the urine to provoke a secondary inflammatory response.19
Interstitial cystitis may be treated initially with an oral
agent; however, intravesical or surgical therapy may
eventually be necessary to control symptoms
Interstitial cystitis remains a diagnosis of exclusion. Patients present with dysuria, urgency and frequency (some affected patients urinate from 60 to 80 times a day and from 10 to 30 times at night). The majority of patients have dyspareunia, and
about 20 percent of patients have gross hematuria. Characteristic symptoms of interstitial cystitis are listed in Table 6. Patients who have this condition will have these symptoms along with evidence of Hunner's ulcers (mucosal ulcerations on the
bladder wall with surrounding granulation tissue) or glomerulations (multiple petechial-like hemorrhages seen in the bladder mucosa with the bladder distended
during cystoscopic examination). Most authorities recommend beginning the physical evaluation with a urodynamic study to demonstrate a reduced bladder capacity.
Bladder biopsies may also be taken to rule out other potential etiologies such as carcinoma in situ.
Symptom Characteristics of the Patient with Interstitial
Symptoms of suprapubic pain with nocturia and frequency of at
least eight times a day for at least nine months
Patient older than 18 years of age
Bladder capacity of less than 350 mL and urge to void if distended with 150 mL of urine
No recent (within the last three months) diagnosis of bacterial cystitis or prostatitis
No alternative explanation for the patient's symptoms (e.g., tuberculous cystitis, radiation cystitis, tumors of the
genitourinary tract, chemical cystitis or active genital herpes or vaginitis) Adapted with permission from Hanno PM. Diagnosis of
interstitial cystitis. Urol Clin North Am 1994;21(1):63-6.
There is no known curative therapy for interstitial cystitis; consequently, efforts are
directed at ameliorating symptoms and improving function. Patients usually begin with oral therapy and, if it is not successful, are changed to intravesical therapy. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is effective in some patients.20
Patient response to any oral therapeutic agent is usually modest at best. While these agents have been shown to improve patients' symptoms relative to placebo,
evidence from large double-blind, controlled studies is lacking. Pentosan polysulfate (Elmiron) was recently labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an
oral therapy for interstitial cystitis. It is a heparin-like compound with anticoagulant and fibrinolytic effects. Its mechanism in interstitial cystitis is unknown; however, it
has been postulated that it acts by augmenting the glycosaminoglycan mucous protective lining of the bladder wall. Given these serious limitations, the oral therapies most commonly prescribed appear in Table 7.
Intravesical therapies include hydrodistention of the bladder during cystoscopic evaluation. This is believed to be therapeutic secondary to the ischemia produced to
the submucosal nerve plexuses and stretch receptors. About 20 percent of patients report decreased pain and increased bladder capacity after this procedure, but
unfortunately symptoms usually recur within three months. Intravesical dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO; Rimso-50) has anti-inflammatory and
analgesic properties and is the only intravesical agent labeled by the FDA for the treatment of interstitial cystitis. The patient's urine must be sterile and at least one month must have passed since any bladder biopsies have been taken. Patients often
complain of a transient worsening of their symptoms due to the chemical cystitis produced in the first day or two after treatment and will also notice a garlic-like odor
to their breath, but 50 to 70 percent of patients with classic interstitial cystitis and 50 to 90 percent of patients with nonulcer interstitial cystitis obtain significant relief
from this treatment.22,23 Even though about 40 percent of treated patients relapse, they usually improve again after another instillation.23 Patients who do not respond
to dimethyl sulfoxide alone should undergo a second course of treatment that includes 100 mg of hydrocortisone. Surgery should be reserved for use in severe cases that are refractory to medical
treatment. The most common surgical procedure performed is a supratrigonal cystectomy with formation of an enterovesical anastomosis. In this procedure, a
small cuff of residual bladder around the trigone is anastomosed to a portion of bowel segment. This procedure is effective in 60 to 90 percent of patients.24 It is
more likely to be effective in patients with smaller bladder capacities (less than 400 mL).25
Patients with interstitial cystitis report great disability from their symptoms. About 50 percent of patients state that they are unable to work full time. Patients with interstitial cystitis score lower on self-assessment quality-of-life scales than do renal
dialysis patients. Physicians or patients seeking more information about this condition can contact the following organization: The Interstitial Cystitis Association,
P.O. Box 1553, Madison Square Station, New York, NY 10159-1553; telephone: 212-979-6057; 800-HELP-ICA (800-435-7422).
Oral Therapy for Interstitial Cystitis
increasing to 60 mg per day in one month
*--Pentosan polysulfate is the only oral agent labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of
interstitial cystitis. Limited evidence supports the efficacy of the other agents in the treatment of this condition.
When vaginitis causes a concomitant dysuria, the symptoms and physical findings
usually are sufficient to make the diagnosis. Candida, Trichomonas and genital
herpes produce dysuria either because of direct injury to the vaginal epithelium or because of an associated inflammatory response. On the other hand, bacterial
vaginosis and some cases of urethritis are far less likely to cause dysuria because
these infections produce less local inflammation. Candidal Vaginitis
Dysuria, vaginal pruritus and discharge are the most common symptoms of
candidiasis and usually worsen just before menstruation. Organisms originate in the perianal area and cause alterations in the normal vaginal environment. The
alterations allow the yeast to multiply, change to its invasive mycelial form and cause symptoms. Table 8 shows several host factors that increase the risk of
asymptomatic and symptomatic vaginal candidiasis.
Factors That Increase the Risk for Asymptomatic and
Symptomatic Vaginal Candidiasis
Higher vaginal glycogen
progesterone levels; estrogen increases vaginal epithelial
contraceptive pills, intrauterine protective flora
Elimination of normal protective flora (especially
with the use of tetracyclines and broader spectrum beta-
Diabetes mellitus (especially if Increased vaginal glycogen
inoculation of organisms during intercourse
Human immunodeficiency virus Altered cell-mediated
Trichomonas vaginalis infection may be asymptomatic but usually causes an
inflammatory vaginitis. There is a three-day to three-week incubation period. Trichomonads reproduce better at the higher vaginal pH in menstrual blood;
consequently, a woman with Trichomonas vaginitis will usually note that her symptoms increase during and immediately following menstruation.
Eighty percent of patients with primary symptomatic genital herpes will have dysuria; however, dysuria is usually not present if the infection recurs.26 Most new cases of genital herpes are acquired from sexual contact with asymptomatic viral
shedders. Primary herpetic infections typically produce dysuria, associated fever, headache, neck pain, photophobia and tender inguinal adenopathy. Seventy-five
percent of patients with genital herpes will have vaginal discharge. Atrophic Vaginitis
Dysuria occurs in women with atrophic vaginitis because of urine contact with the
inflamed atrophic tissues themselves or because of the increased incidence of urinary tract infections in these women. Atrophic vaginitis is a common disorder, affecting from 20 to 30 percent of postmenopausal women. Decreased vaginal discharge,
vaginal tenderness and dyspareunia are common in women with atrophic vaginitis. Women may also have bloody vaginal spotting, especially after intercourse.
Atrophic vaginitis also increases the risk for urinary tract infections. Approximately 10 to 15 percent of women over 60 years of age have frequent urinary tract
infections. Postmenopausal status is associated with a higher vaginal pH, a decrease in vaginal lactobacillus colonization and increased colonization with E. coli. Topical
estriol vaginal cream is an effective treatment in postmenopausal women with
recurrent infections. In one study,27 patients treated with the estriol cream averaged 0.5 infections per year, compared with about 6.0 infections per year in
women who were not treated. Infectious Urethritis
Infectious urethritis has not been studied as extensively in women as it has been in
men. Chlamydia infection has long been thought to be responsible for many cases of dysuria in women with negative urine cultures.28 However, some authorities have
been unable to show an association between dysuria and Chlamydia in women.29 A correlation between greater than five white blood cells per high-power field on a urethral swab and the presence of Chlamydia has been identified.29 A gonococcus
may, less commonly, be asymptomatically present in the female urethra as well. About 75 percent of women with Chlamydia identified on urethral swabs have
simultaneously had the organism isolated from their cervixes. The finding of intracellular, gram-negative diplococci on Gram's stain is 50 percent sensitive for
gonorrhea infection in women.30 If either organism is suspected, the patient should undergo further testing such as a DNA probe to confirm the diagnosis.
Vaginal and urethral trauma, including sexual abuse and the insertion of a foreign
body, can cause dysuria, as can irritant or topical allergic responses to soaps, douches, vaginal lubricants, spermicidal jellies, contraceptive foams and sponges,
and tampons and sanitary napkins. Perfumed soaps and toilet paper are also common causes of dysuria. Avoidance of the irritative agent generally leads to the
resolution of symptoms. The Author
KURT KUROWSKI, M.D.,
is an assistant professor and predoctoral director in the Department of Family
Medicine at the Finch University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School, North Chicago. He received a medical degree from the University of Wisconsin Medical
School, Madison, and completed a family practice residency at Resurrection Hospital, Chicago.
Urinary Tract Infections in Adults
Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center Richmond, Virginia
EDWARD S. WONG, M.D. Virginia Commonwealth University, Medical College of Virginia Richmond, Virginia
Urinary tract infections remain a significant cause of morbidity in all age groups. Recent studies have helped to better define the population groups at risk for these infections, as well as the most cost-effective management strategies. Initially, a
urinary tract infection should be categorized as complicated or uncomplicated. Further categorization of the infection by clinical syndrome and by host (i.e., acute
cystitis in young women, acute pyelonephritis, catheter-related infection, infection in men, asymptomatic bacteriuria in the elderly) helps the physician determine the
appropriate diagnostic and management strategies. Uncomplicated urinary tract infections are caused by a predictable group of susceptible organisms. These
infections can be empirically treated without the need for urine cultures. The most
effective therapy for an uncomplicated infection is a three-day course of trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole. Complicated infections are diagnosed by
quantitative urine cultures and require a more prolonged course of therapy. Asymptomatic bacteriuria rarely requires treatment and is not associated with
increased morbidity in elderly patients. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a leading cause of morbidity and health care
expenditures in persons of all ages. Sexually active young women are disproportionately affected, but several other populations, including elderly persons
and those undergoing genitourinary instrumentation or catheterization, are also at risk. An estimated 40 percent of women report having had a UTI at some point in their lives.1 UTIs are the leading cause of gram-negative bacteremia. In the United
States, these infections account for approximately 7 million office visits and more than 1 million hospitalizations, for an overall annual cost in excess of $1 billion.1,2
Recently published studies have added to the body of knowledge concerning the pathogenesis, diagnosis and management of UTIs. However, many practical issues
have yet to be fully addressed. When should urine cultures be obtained? What diagnostic threshold should be used to define infection? What is the optimal duration
of therapy and how should it be administered? Does bacteriuria in the elderly lead to adverse outcomes? Should trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra) remain the initial therapy of choice for UTIs? This article clarifies these issues by reviewing
the approach to the diagnosis and treatment of each patient group at risk for UTIs. In addition, a simple diagnostic approach to urinary tract infection in adults is
Adult Urinary Tract Infection
FIGURE 1. Diagnostic approach to urinary tract infections in adults. (UTI=urinary tract infection)
A recent categorization of UTIs is most helpful clinically because it divides patients into groups based on clinical factors and their impact on morbidity and treatment
(Table 1).3 These categories are as follows: acute uncomplicated cystitis in young women; recurrent cystitis in young women; acute uncomplicated pyelonephritis in
young women; complicated UTI and its subcategories; UTI related to indwelling catheters; UTI in men; and asymptomatic bacteriuria.
Acute Uncomplicated Cystitis in Young Women
Those most at risk for UTIs are sexually active young women. Their propensity to develop UTIs has been explained on the basis of anatomy (especially a short urethra) and certain behavioral factors, including delays in micturition, sexual
activity, and the use of diaphragms and spermicides (both of which promote colonization of the periurethral area with coliform bacteria).4 Fortunately, most UTIs
in this population are uncomplicated and are rarely associated with functional or anatomic abnormalities. In studies of women presenting with dysuria and increased
frequency of urination, intravenous pyelography and ultrasonography have demonstrated low rates (less than 1 percent) of surgically correctable anatomic
abnormalities of the urinary tract.5 Therefore, aggressive diagnostic work-ups are unwarranted in young women presenting with an uncomplicated episode of cystitis.3,6
Urinary Tract Infections in Adults
First-line therapy Comments
TMP-SMX=trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole; CFU=colony-forming unit; IV=intravenous.
*--Patient is given a prescription for an antibiotic to take if symptoms develop.
Information from Stamm WE, Hooton TM. Management of urinary tract infections in adults. N Engl J Med 1993;329:1328-
The diagnosis of UTI was once based on a quantitative urine culture yielding greater than 100,000 colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per milliliter of urine, which was
termed "significant bacteriuria."7 This value was chosen because of its high specificity for the diagnosis of true infection, even in asymptomatic persons.
However, several studies8-10 have established that one third or more of symptomatic women have CFU counts below this level (low-coliform-count
infections) and that a bacterial count of 100 CFU per mL of urine has a high positive predictive value for cystitis in symptomatic women. Unfortunately, some clinical
laboratories do not report counts of less than 10,000 CFU per mL of urine. As a result, low-coliform-count infections are not diagnosed by these laboratories. The microbiology of uncomplicated cystitis is limited to a few pathogens. As many as
90 percent of uncomplicated cystitis episodes are caused by Escherichia coli, 10 to 20 percent are caused by coagulase-negative Staphylococcus saprophyticus and 5
percent or less are caused by other Enterobacteriaceae organisms or enterococci.3 In addition, the antimicrobial susceptibilities of these organisms are highly predictable.
Up to one third of uropathogens are resistant to ampicillin and sulfonamides, but the majority are susceptible to trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (85 to 95 percent) and
Diagnostic Tests for Urinary Tract Infections in Women
mL of urine Microscopy
mm3 Rapid tests
Adapted with permission from Fihn SD, McGee SR. Outpatient
medicine. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders, 1992.
In view of the limited spectrum of causative organisms and their predictable susceptibility, urine cultures and susceptibility testing add little to the choice of
antibiotic for the treatment of acute uncomplicated cystitis in young women. Therefore, urine cultures are no longer advocated as part of the routine work-up of
these patients. Instead, these patients should undergo an abbreviated laboratory work-up in which the presence of pyuria is confirmed by traditional urinalysis (wet mount examination of spun urine), the cell-counting chamber technique or a dipstick
An estimated 40 percent of women report having had a
UTI at some point in their lives.
A positive leukocyte esterase test has a reported sensitivity of 75 to 90 percent in detecting pyuria associated with a UTI. Gram staining of unspun urine can be used to detect bacteriuria. In this semiquantitative test, one organism per oil immersion field
correlates with 100,000 CFU per mL by culture.1 Because the procedure is time-consuming and has low sensitivity, it is not routinely performed in most clinical
laboratories unless it is specifically requested. In today's office practice, the dipstick test for nitrite is used as a surrogate marker for bacteriuria. It should be noted that
not all uropathogens reduce nitrates to nitrite. For example, enterococci, S. saprophyticus and Acinetobacter species do not and therefore give false-negative
results. The sensitivities and specificities of the tests commonly used to diagnose UTIs are given in Table 2.12 Treatment options for uncomplicated cystitis include single-dose antibiotic therapy
and three- or seven-day courses of antibiotics (Table 3). Treatment of cystitis with seven or more days of antibiotics once was the standard of therapy. Although this
regimen was highly efficacious, it was associated with a certain (albeit low) frequency of side effects. Single-dose therapy appears to offer the advantages of low
cost, high compliance and comparable efficacy. Studies using 3 g of amoxicillin, 400 mg of trimethoprim (Proloprim), two to three double-strength trimethoprim-
sulfamethoxazole tablets, 800 mg of norfloxacin (Noroxin), 125 mg of ciprofloxacin (Cipro) or 200 mg of ofloxacin (Floxin) have confirmed that single-dose therapy is highly effective in the treatment of acute uncomplicated cystitis, with cure rates
ranging from 80 to 99 percent.3 Fosfomycin tromethamine (Monurol) can be given as a single oral 3-g sachet for the
treatment of acute uncomplicated UTIs. This drug is active against E. coli, enterococci and Citrobacter, Enterobacter, Klebsiella and Serratia species. The
clinical cure rate is estimated to be as high as 99 percent. Fosfomycin may be safely used in pregnancy.13
Single-dose antibiotic therapy fell into disfavor when it was observed that women had a high risk of recurrence within six weeks of the initial treatment.14,15 The risk
was attributed to the failure of single-dose antibiotics to eradicate gram-negative bacteria from the rectum, the source or reservoir for ascending uropathogens.
Antibiotic Therapy for Urinary Tract Infections
Empiric options Cost
mg twice daily Sparfloxacin (Zagam), 400 mg
mg per day Nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin),
(Augmentin), 500 mg twice daily Trimethoprim-
strength tablet twice daily Ciprofloxacin, 500
*--Estimated cost to the pharmacist based on average wholesale prices, rounded to the nearest half dollar, in Red book. Montvale, N.J.: Medical Economics Data, 1998. Cost to
the patient will be higher, depending on prescription filling fee. †--The Sanford guide (1998) recommends intravenous therapy
until patient is afebrile for 24 to 48 hours, then a two-week course of oral therapy.
‡--Same regimens as for pyelonephritis. §--Based on 70-kg (154-lb) patient.
Unlike single-dose antibiotic therapy, a three-day regimen reduces rectal carriage of gram-negative bacteria and is not associated with a high recurrence rate. Thus, three-day regimens appear to offer the optimal combination of convenience, low cost
and an efficacy comparable to that of seven-day or longer regimens but with fewer side effects.11 One randomized trial16 compared three days of trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole
therapy, one double-strength tablet twice daily, with three days of treatment using
the following drugs: nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin), 100 mg four times daily; cefadroxil, 500 mg twice daily; and amoxicillin, 500 mg three times daily.
Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole was found to be the most cost-effective treatment. Three-day regimens of ciprofloxacin, 250 mg twice daily, and ofloxacin, 200 mg
twice daily, were recently compared with three-day trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole therapy.3,11 The oral fluoroquinolones produced better cure rates with less toxicity,
but at a greater overall cost. Quinolones that are useful in treating complicated and uncomplicated cystitis include
ciprofloxacin, norfloxacin, ofloxacin, enoxacin (Penetrex), lomefloxacin (Maxaquin), sparfloxacin (Zagam) and levofloxacin (Levaquin).11 The newer fluoroquinolone, sparfloxacin, in a dosage of 400 mg per day as the initial dose and then 200 mg per
day for two days, is equivalent to three days of therapy with ofloxacin or ciprofloxacin. However, sparfloxacin can cause phototoxicity, and it has also been
associated with prolongation of the QT interval.17
As many as 90 percent of uncomplicated cystitis
episodes are caused by Escherichia coli, 10 to 20 percent
are caused by the coagulase-negative Staphylococcus
saprophyticus, and 5 percent or less are caused by other
Enterobacteriaceae organisms or enterococci.
On the basis of cost and efficacy, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole remains the antibiotic of choice in the treatment of uncomplicated UTIs in young women. The use
of fluoroquinolones as first-line therapy for uncomplicated UTIs should be discouraged, except in patients who cannot tolerate sulfonamides or trimethoprim,
who have a high frequency of antibiotic resistance because of recent antibiotic treatment or who reside in an area in which significant resistance to trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole has been noted. Three days is the optimal duration of treatment
for uncomplicated cystitis. A seven-day course should be considered in pregnant women, diabetic women and women who have had symptoms for more than than
one week and thus are at higher risk for pyelonephritis because of the delay in treatment.
Recurrent Cystitis in Young Women
Up to 20 percent of young women with acute cystitis develop recurrent UTIs. During these recurrent episodes, the causative organism should be identified by urine culture and then documented to help differentiate between relapse (infection with
the same organism) and recurrence (infection with different organisms). Multiple infections caused by the same organism are, by definition, complicated UTIs and
require longer courses of antibiotics and possibly further diagnostic tests (see the discussion of complicated UTIs). Fortunately, most recurrent UTIs in young women
are uncomplicated infections caused by different organisms. These infections are generally not associated with underlying anatomic abnormalities and do not require
further work-up of the genitourinary tract.5,11,18 Women who have more than three UTI recurrences documented by urine culture within one year can be managed using one of three preventive strategies3,19:
1. Acute self-treatment with a three-day course of standard therapy. 2. Postcoital prophylaxis with one-half of a trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole double-
strength tablet (40/200 mg) if the UTIs have been clearly related to intercourse. 3. Continuous daily prophylaxis with one of these regimens for a period of six
months: trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, one-half tablet per day (40/200 mg); nitrofurantoin, 50 to 100 mg per day; norfloxacin, 200 mg per day; cephalexin
(Keflex), 250 mg per day; or trimethoprim, 100 mg per day. Each of these regimens has been shown to decrease the morbidity of recurrent UTIs
without a concomitant increase in antibiotic resistance. Long-term studies have shown antibiotic prophylaxis to be effective for up to five years with trimethoprim,
trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or nitrofurantoin, without the emergence of drug resistance.3,19 Unfortunately, antibiotic prophylaxis does not appear to alter the
natural history of recurrences because 40 to 60 percent of these women reestablish their pattern or frequency of infections within six months of stopping prophylaxis.19
A complicated UTI is one that occurs because of anatomic, functional or
pharmacologic factors that predispose the patient to persistent infection, recurrent infection or treatment failure. These factors include conditions often encountered in
elderly men, such as enlargement of the prostate gland, blockages and other problems necessitating the placement of indwelling urinary devices, and the
presence of bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. Although antibiotic-susceptible E. coli is responsible for more than 80 percent of uncomplicated UTIs, it
accounts for fewer than one third of complicated cases.1,3 Clinically, the spectrum of complicated UTIs may range from cystitis to urosepsis with septic shock. Accurate urine culture and susceptibility information are necessary to best target and
eradicate the pathogens in complicated UTIs. These infections are usually associated with high-count bacteriuria (greater than 100,000 CFU per mL of urine).
Occasionally, lower quantitative counts may be encountered in patients who are undergoing diuresis or who are in renal failure. The initial empiric therapy for these
patients should include an agent with a broad spectrum of activity against the expected uropathogens. Treatment most often includes a fluoroquinolone,
administered orally if possible. In patients who are unable to tolerate oral medication or who require hospitalization for concomitant medical problems, appropriate initial therapy may be parenteral administration of one of the following: a third-generation
cephalosporin with antipseudomonal activity such as ceftazidime (Fortaz) or cefoperazone (Cefobid), cefepime (Maxipime), aztreonam (Azactam), imipenem-
cilastatin (Primaxin) or the combination of an antipseudomonal penicillin (ticarcillin [Ticar], mezlocillin [Mezlin], piperacillin [Pipracil]) with an aminoglycoside.
Enterococci are frequently encountered uropathogens in complicated UTIs. In areas in which vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium is prevalent, the investigational
agent quinupristin-dalfopristin (Synercid) may be useful.20 Patients with complicated UTIs require at least a 10- to 14-day course of therapy. Follow-up urine cultures should be performed within 10 to 14 days after treatment to
ensure that the uropathogen has been eradicated. Recent studies have shown that patients initially placed on parenteral therapy can be switched to oral therapy within
72 hours as long as they are clinically improving and able to tolerate the oral agent, and a regimen is available that covers the identified pathogen(s).11,21
Women with acute uncomplicated pyelonephritis may present with one of the following: a mild cystitis-like illness and accompanying flank pain; a more severe illness with fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, leukocytosis and abdominal pain; or a
serious gram-negative bacteremia. The microbiologic features of acute uncomplicated pyelonephritis mirror cystitis, except that S. saprophyticus is a rare
cause. In most patients, uncomplicated pyelonephritis is caused by specific uropathogenic strains of E. coli possessing adhesins that permit ascending infection
of the urinary tract. The diagnosis should be confirmed by urinalysis with examination for pyuria and/or
white blood cell casts and by urine culture. Urine cultures demonstrate more than 100,000 CFU per mL of urine in 80 percent of women with pyelonephritis. Blood
cultures are positive in up to 20 percent of women who have this infection. With the exceptions of white cell casts on urinalysis, and bacteremia and flank pain on
physical examination, none of the physical or laboratory findings are specific for pyelonephritis.3
Oral therapy should be considered in women with mild to moderate symptoms who are compliant with therapy and can tolerate oral antibiotics but do not have other
significant conditions, including pregnancy and gastrointestinal upset. Since E. coli resistance to ampicillin, amoxicillin and first-generation cephalosporins exceeds 30 percent in most locales, these agents should not be used empirically for the
treatment of pyelonephritis.11 Even though trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole is often considered the treatment of choice, resistance to this drug combination may exceed
15 percent in some regions. In those instances, empiric therapy using an oral fluoroquinolone should be considered.
Patients who are too ill to take oral antibiotics or who are unable to take them should initially be treated with parenterally administered single agents, such as
trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, a third-generation cephalosporin, aztreonam, a broad-spectrum penicillin, a quinolone or an aminoglycoside. The choice of antibiotic is largely empiric, but Gram staining of the urine may be helpful. Once these patients
have improved clinically (usually by day 3), they can be switched to oral therapy based on the results of culture and sensitivity studies.11
The total duration of therapy need not exceed 14 days, regardless of the initial bacteremia. Patients with persistent symptoms after three days of appropriate
antimicrobial therapy should be evaluated by renal ultrasonography or computed tomography for evidence of urinary obstruction or abscess. In the small percentage
of patients who relapse after a two-week course, a repeated six-week course is
usually curative.11 UTI in Men
Urinary tract infections most commonly occur in older men with prostatic disease,
outlet obstruction or urinary tract instrumentation. These infections occasionally occur in young men who participate in anal sex (exposure to E. coli in the rectum),
who are not circumcised (increased E. coli colonization of the glans and prepuce) or whose sexual partner is colonized with uropathogens.22
In men (unlike in women), a urine culture growing more than 1,000 CFU of a pathogen per mL of urine is the best sign of a urinary tract infection, with a sensitivity and specificity of 97 percent.23 Men with urinary tract infections should
receive a minimum of seven days of antibiotic therapy (either trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole or a fluoroquinolone). However, more extensive courses may be
required in, for example, men with associated urinary tract infection and prostatitis. Consensus regarding the need for a urologic work-up in men with urinary tract
infections is lacking. Among young men with acute cystitis who respond to seven days of treatment, diagnostic work-ups beyond cultures are generally
unrewarding.24 Urologic evaluation should be performed routinely in adolescents and men with pyelonephritis or recurrent infections.11,25 When bacterial prostatitis is the source of a urinary tract infection, eradication usually requires antibiotic therapy
for six to 12 weeks and in rare instances even longer. Catheter-Associated UTI
Between 10 and 20 percent of patients who are hospitalized receive an indwelling
Foley catheter. Once this catheter is in place, the risk of bacteriuria is approximately 5 percent per day. With long-term catheterization, bacteriuria is inevitable. Catheter-
associated urinary tract infections account for 40 percent of all nosocomial infections and are the most common source of gram-negative bacteremia in hospitalized
Unlike single-dose antibiotic therapy, a three-day
regimen reduces rectal carriage of gram-negative
bacteria and is not associated with a high recurrence
rate. Thus, three-day regimens appear to offer the
optimal combination of convenience, low cost and an
efficacy comparable to that of seven-day or longer
regimens but with fewer side effects.
The diagnosis of catheter-associated urinary tract infection can be made when the urine culture shows 100 or more CFU per mL of urine from a catheterized patient.
The microbiology of catheter-associated urinary tract infections includes E. coli and Proteus, Enterococcus, Pseudomonas, Enterobacter, Serratia and Candida species.
The bacterial distribution reflects the nosocomial origin of the infections because so many of the uropathogens are acquired exogenously via manipulation of the catheter and drainage device. Bacteriuria is often polymicrobic, especially in patients with
long-term indwelling urinary catheters. Symptomatic bacteriuria in a patient with an indwelling Foley catheter should be
treated with antibiotics that cover potential nosocomial uropathogens. Patients with mild to moderate infections may be treated with one of the oral quinolones, usually
for 10 to 14 days. Parenteral antibiotic therapy may be necessary in patients with severe infections or patients who are unable to tolerate oral medications. The
recommended duration of therapy for severe infections is 14 to 21 days. Treatment is not recommended for catheterized patients who have asymptomatic bacteriuria, with the following exceptions: patients who are immunosuppressed after organ
transplantation, patients at risk for bacterial endocarditis and patients who are about to undergo urinary tract instrumentation.26
Bacteriuria is almost inevitable with long-term catheterization, and prevention strategies have largely been unsuccessful. In such patients, catheters should be
changed periodically to prevent the formation of concretions and obstruction that can lead to infection. Prophylactic systemic antibiotics have been shown to delay the
onset of bacteriuria in catheterized patients, but this strategy may lead to increased bacterial resistance.26 Prophylactic antibiotic therapy has been successful in reducing the frequency of bacteriuria only in patients who can be weaned from
indwelling catheters to intermittent catheterization. Asymptomatic Bacteriuria
Asymptomatic bacteriuria is defined as the presence of more than 100,000 CFU per
mL of voided urine in persons with no symptoms of urinary tract infection. The largest patient population at risk for asymptomatic bacteriuria is the elderly. Up to
40 percent of elderly men and women may have bacteriuria without symptoms. Although early studies noted an association between bacteriuria and excess mortality, more recent studies have failed to demonstrate any such link.27 In fact,
aggressively screening elderly persons for asymptomatic bacteriuria and subsequent treatment of the infection has not been found to reduce either infectious
complications or mortality. Consequently, this approach currently is not recommended.
Three groups of patients with asymptomatic bacteriuria have been shown to benefit from treatment: (1) pregnant women, (2) patients with renal transplants and (3)
patients who are about to undergo genitourinary tract procedures.3 Between 2 and 10 percent of pregnancies are complicated by UTIs; if left untreated, 25 to 30
percent of these women develop pyelonephritis.28,29 Pregnancies that are complicated by pyelonephritis have been associated with low-birth-weight infants
and prematurity. Thus, pregnant women should be screened for bacteriuria by urine culture at 12 to 16 weeks of gestation. The presence of 100,000 CFU of bacteria per
mL of urine is considered significant. Pregnant women with asymptomatic bacteriuria should be treated with a three- to
seven-day course of antibiotics, and the urine should subsequently be cultured to ensure cure and the avoidance of relapse.29 Although amoxicillin is frequently suggested as the agent of choice, E. coli is now commonly resistant to ampicillin,
amoxicillin and cephalexin. Thus, treatment should be based on the results of susceptibility tests. Nitrofurantoin or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole may also be
used; however, caution should be exercised in the third trimester because the sulfonamides compete with bilirubin binding in the newborn.
Symptomatic urinary tract infections complicate 1 to 2 percent of pregnancies, usually in women with persistent bacteriuria.28,29 Most pregnant women with
pyelonephritis should be hospitalized. Initially, these patients should receive intravenous antibiotic therapy. They should complete a 14-day course of acute antibiotic therapy followed by nightly suppressive therapy until delivery. Recent
studies have shown that selected pregnant women with pyelonephritis can be treated with either outpatient intramuscularly administered ceftriaxone (Rocephin) or orally
administered cephalexin.28 Ceftriaxone, a third-generation parenterally administered cephalosporin, is a suitable agent for inpatient treatment. Tetracyclines and
fluoroquinolones should be avoided in pregnancy. The Authors
ROBERT ORENSTEIN, D.O.,
is assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Virginia
Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia, Richmond. He is also director of the HIV/AIDS Program at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center,
also in Richmond. Dr. Orenstein graduated from the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences, Des Moines, Iowa. He completed a residency in
internal medicine at Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, Pa., and a fellowship in infectious diseases at the Medical College of Virginia.
EDWARD S. WONG, M.D., is associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia and chief of the infectious
diseases section at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Dr. Wong received his medical degree from Harvard Medical School, Boston. He
completed a residency in internal medicine at Montefiore Hospital, New York, N.Y., and a fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Washington Medical
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