A Higher Risk
Most health-conscious women are well versed in current preventative approaches to reducing the risk of developing major, life-threatening diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
But unless you’ve suffered a urinary tract infection or the symptoms of gallstones, chances are you don’t know much about these medical conditions. Statistics suggest, however, that maybe you should.
“Gallstone disease is one of the most common of all digestive diseases,” says Sadiya Cheshty, M.D., of Regional Gastroenterology Associates of Lancaster. “Recent data has estimated that more than 14 million women aged 20 to 74 in the United States have gallbladder disease. That is more than double the number of men with the condition.
“The higher rates of gallstones in women are almost certainly a result of female hormones and pregnancy,” Cheshty says. “Pregnancy is a major risk factor for the development of gallstones. One study showed that the chances of having gallstones increases in a woman from about 1 percent if she has not had children to 12 percent after multiple pregnancies.
“Ultimately, female hormones are the underlying cause. Use of oral contraceptives and estrogen replacement will increase a woman’s risk for gallstones.”
According to Cheshty, other potential factors in increased rates of gallstones among women include obesity, rapid weight loss (especially following weight-loss surgery), low-calorie diets, and the presence o other medical conditions, including high cholesterol, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and liver disease.
Family history of gallstones also is a risk factor and accounts for more than 30 percent of gallstone-disease cases.
When it comes to UTIs, Ani Stull, D.O., a physician with May-Grant Associates, an obstetrics and gynecology practice, reports that an estimated 8 million women experience a UTI each year—about four times the number of men who are afflicted. The primary reason, she says, is anatomy.
“Urinary tract infections are caused when bacteria enter the urethra and travel into the bladder,” Stull says. “Women have a shorter urethra than men do. This cuts down on the distance that bacteria have to travel to reach a woman’s bladder.”
Although gallstones and UTIs may not be entirely preventable, understanding the symptoms, treatments, and preventions can help ensure that their effect on your overall health is manageable.
When Gallstones Present Symptoms
The gallbladder is a small sac located just beneath the liver that stores the bile the liver produces to digest fats. Bile moves from the gallbladder to the small intestine through tubes called the cystic duct and common bile duct.
Gallstones are small, hard masses that form in the gallbladder. Not every person with gallstones experiences symptoms. However, symptomatic gallstones cause pain in the upper abdomen, often the result of stones escaping the gallbladder and lodging in the bile ducts.
“The pain from gallstones can be sporadic and unpredictable,” Cheshty says. “It tends to occur in the upper-right quadrant of the abdomen, sometimes radiating to the back or right shoulder blade. The pain comes on after eating and often is described as intense and dull, typically lasting one to five hours. The pain increases steadily, and then gradually wanes. It sometimes is accompanied by sweating, nausea, and vomiting.”
In addition to abdominal pain, symptoms associated with gallstones include indigestion, dyspepsia, belching, bloating, and fat intolerance.
Cheshty points out, however, that these same symptoms also can occur with cardiac disease, pneumonia, pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, peptic ulcers, hepatitis, reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, esophageal spasm, and appendicitis.
“These symptoms are very nonspecific and occur in similar frequencies in individuals with and without gallstones. Having these symptoms warrants seeking medical attention,” she advises.
Blood tests and ultrasound imaging are the first steps in determining the course of treatment for gallstones. Surgery usually is required if the patient has experienced recurring painful episodes.
The procedure to remove the gallbladder is called a cholecystectomy, and it usually is performed laparoscopically by inserting a tiny video camera and special surgical tools through four small incisions. It typically is an outpatient procedure.
UTIs: Risk Increases with Age
The symptoms of a urinary tract infection, according to Stull, are pain or burning with urination, the need to urinate often, the need to urinate in a hurry, blood in the urine, and discomfort in the lower abdomen. If the infection has traveled into the kidneys, symptoms may include fever, back pain, nausea, and vomiting.
Other conditions with symptoms similar to a UTI include yeast infections, vaginal bacterial infections (bacterial vaginosis), painful bladder syndrome (interstitial cystitis), and kidney stones.
She advises anyone experiencing these symptoms to seek medical care. Ignoring them could lead to a kidney infection, which can require hospitalization and treatment with intravenous antibiotics.
Urinary tract infections are treated with oral antibiotics, Stull says. Sometimes a medication called Pyridium may be prescribed to numb the bladder and decrease associated pain.
Women who have gone through menopause are more susceptible to UTIs than younger women.
“As a woman’s estrogen levels decrease with menopause, her risk of urinary tract infections increases due to the loss of protective vaginal flora,” Stull says. “Risk factors for developing a UTI include recent sexual intercourse, spermicide use, and a history of UTIs.” BW
Help guard yourself against gallstones and UTIs by following these simple steps provided by Cheshty and Stull.
Urinary Tract Infections
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Urinate immediately after sex.
- Wipe from front to back.
- If you are a woman who has been through menopause and you have frequent UTIs, ask your doctor about vaginal estrogen treatment.
- If you’re susceptible to UTIs, consider a birth control method other than spermicides.
- Exercise – 30 minutes of endurance-type training five times per week.
- Make sure you’re consuming adequate amounts of vitamin C.
- Drink your coffee – moderate coffee consumption can reduce symptoms of gallstones.
- Limit poly- and monounsaturated fats in your diet.
- Eat more vegetable protein and nuts.
- If you are planning to lose weight rapidly or you are scheduled to have weight-loss surgery, your doctor can prescribe a medication called ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) to reduce your risk of getting gallstones.
- If you are being treated for high cholesterol with a statin medication, this can protect you against gallstone disease.