Here’s something I never thought I’d say publicly: I have a urinary tract infection (UTI). And next time you have one, you should also be open about it, too.
Now, before the trolls privately message me with “This isn’t news! How dare you!” (it’s happened), hear me out.
It is a radical action for a woman to publicly state that she has a UTI, or any other “women’s health”-related issue.
This is because we are often treated as though our experiences with pain or ill health – and particularly when it’s related to our female anatomy – are disgusting, embarrassing or even non-existent.
How do I know this? Because, along with the physical discomfort and pain, I have also felt embarrassed and stressed by the social implications of having a UTI.
And I’ve decided that I don’t want to feel that way any more.
It is already difficult and physically painful to be a woman (hello, menstruation, cramps, endometriosis, vaginal births, caesareans, miscarriage, menopause, and so on). I don’t need to add the psychological pain of shame and self-hate to it.
These feelings of embarrassment and doubt began before even before I saw my doctor.
I was supposed to stay home that day and wait for a heating company to come over, as they were going to give me a quote for replacing my gas heating system (I live in Canberra, and it’s freezing).
Instead, I postponed it to the next day and went to the doctor instead.
The receptionist from the heating company was not happy about this, and asked over the phone why I couldn’t see the tradesmen that day.
I wanted to tell her that I had a UTI, and that I needed to get medication immediately, or it would get worse. But I was too embarrassed, and told her instead that it was a ‘medical emergency’, and would have to reschedule.
Ladies, if you have a UTI, you don’t need to feel ashamed! ❤️❤️❤️I’ve had a UTI (urinary tract infection) this week, and it sucks. I feel uncomfortable and unwell, and I’ve had to cancel a few things. But the thing that’s bugged me the most was my own attitude towards it: embarrassment and shame. On the day I went to the doctor to get antibiotics, I was supposed to have some tradespeople visit. Their office called to reschedule, and asked why I wouldn’t meet them at that time. I wanted to tell them that it was because I had a UTI, and if I didn’t get my medicine ASAP, it would get worse. But instead, I apologised and said that I was “sick” and had to make an emergency appointment, without explaining the true nature of my illness. After my doctor’s appointment, I was at a local supermarket, buying a giant bottle of cranberry juice, a common natural treatment for alleviating the symptoms of a UTI (I am also scoffing antibiotics, of course!) As I carried around the cranberry juice, I thought to myself, “I really hope no-one thinks I have a UTI.” ❤️❤️❤️ When I got home, I had a good think about why I felt so self-conscious about having a UTI. I realised that I had a learned, misogynistic attitude towards my own body. UTIs are most common amongst women, due to the design of our bodies. A UTI often occurs after sexual intercourse, and/or simply due to the fact that a woman’s urethra is short and closer to sources of bacteria from the vagina or anus. Essentially, I was ashamed of being a woman. ❤️❤️❤️ So after that realisation, I’ve been upfront with others about my condition. I’ve straight up told them that I have a UTI. Even my husband has become more woke to this, telling his colleagues he had to go home to help me with the kids, as I was sick with a UTI. ❤️❤️❤️ So, don’t be embarrassed or ashamed for having an infection – or anything – that is particular or common to women. We’re women and we’re tough. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta chug more cranberry juice. ????????????(This was originally posted to my illustration account, @littlecloudcarla! Follow me there if you like feminist comics!)
As I drove to my appointment, I began to rehearse what I would say to my doctor, like a barrister who wants to win a case for their client.
I talked to myself in the car, because I was so worried that the doctor wouldn’t believe me, and I wouldn’t be able to get the medicine I needed.
“Hi, I’m Carla, I feel like I need to wee all the time but nothing comes out, and my bladder feels a bit swollen,” I whispered at the red traffic light. I was lucky this time to avoid the bleeding and stinging sensation while urinating, but in the past, I’ve experienced the whole UTI thing.
In previous experiences, I’ve had doctors who have dismissed my symptoms.
They’ve said, “Well, I don’t know if you have a UTI. You might be imagining it, or you might have been drinking too much water in this hot weather. You can’t just come here and say you’ve got a UTI, without doing any tests. Just take more probiotics, and if you don’t get better, come back.” And I’ve returned home, feeling that I shouldn’t have been so silly to think I was unwell, only to experience all the symptoms and pain again.
Gender bias amongst medical professionals is a problem, as current studies have shown.
A study published just last week in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that Australian women are almost twice as likely as men to die within six months of a serious heart attack.
A senior author of the study, cardiologist and Sydney University professor Clara Chow, told The Guardian Australia, “Women with serious heart attacks are being undertreated and it’s just not acceptable.”
Maya Dusenbury, author of Doing Harm: The truth about how bad medicine and lazy science leaves women dismissed, misdiagnosed and sick (HarperCollins, 2018) told ABC Radio National last week that “Men are given the benefit of the doubt a little bit more than women, treated with an initial default that if they are entering the medical system, it must be because something is really wrong.”
In her research, she found that women under 55 are seven times more likely than the average patient to be discharged from the emergency room in the middle of suffering a heart attack.
As a woman with high blood pressure and high cholesterol (due to an autoimmune kidney disease), this is frightening.
Back to my UTI.
Thankfully, the doctor I saw that day was wonderful. She believed me and sympathised immediately, and tested my urine right in her room, instead of making me wait three days for a lab to do it. I was ridiculously grateful.
After diagnosing me with a UTI and prescribing me antibiotics, the doctor also recommended that I take vitamin C and drink cranberry juice. At the supermarket, I grabbed the biggest bottle of cranberry juice that I could find, and headed for the register. As I walked along, carrying the giant cranberry juice bottle in my arms like a baby, I felt conspicuous and self-conscious. “I hope no-one thinks I have a UTI,” I worried.
When I was home, watching Netflix and chugging cranberry juice, Ural and antibiotics, I had a good think about why I was being so weird about my UTI. And I realised that I had a learned, misogynistic attitude towards my own body.
UTIs frequently occur in women because of the design of our bodies. A woman’s urethra is short, which means that bacteria can easily travel from the outside of the body and into the bladder.
“Honeymoon disease” or “honeymoon cystitis” is another way that people refer to UTIs, as women can develop a UTI after being sexually active. Any type of sex, whether it’s penetrative, oral or with a male or female partner, can push bacteria from outside of the body into a woman’s urethra, where a UTI can develop.
So, I realised that essentially, I was ashamed of being a woman, and a woman who is sexually active.
As women, we learn to keep quiet about what our bodies suffer and experience. We describe our periods as “that time of the month”, and we are still shamed for being outspoken about sex. To make a woman feel bad or embarrassed for having a UTI is to be misogynistic and slut-shaming. And I was horrified to find that, through my worry and embarrassment, I was contributing to the problem.
I drew a comic of me carrying the giant cranberry juice and wrote about my UTI on Instagram, as a way to share my changed perspectives.
I was worried that people would be grossed out by my post, but in fact, I found that I was surrounded by supportive, understanding and helpful women. Many commented or DM’d me with similar stories, as well as tips on how to treat my UTI.
I started to be totally honest about my UTI.
When I couldn’t make it to see the Mamamia Out Loud live show in Canberra last Friday, I told Holly Wainwright that it was because I had a UTI. I felt bad that I didn’t get to see my friends, but it wasn’t as yucky as lying about a common infection.
That week, I was also supposed to go to my kids’ preschool parent-teacher night. I sent my husband, Jeff, along instead, as I felt so unwell. He also felt strange about telling the teachers I had a UTI, so he told them that I had the flu.
After seeing my comic and having a good chat, Jeff changed his approach.
The next day, he left work early to help me look after our kids, and he told his colleagues that it was because “my wife has a really bad UTI”.
His colleagues did not recoil in horror or make crude sex jokes. Instead, they offered him support, and the women told him that they, too had experienced painful UTIs and had been dismissed by doctors. When he got home, Jeff told me that his work friends hoped I’d get better soon, that they wanted me to know that they understood and sympathised.
A few days later, I saw my kids’ teachers, and thanked them for the reports they’d written and for all the things they’d told Jeff in the parent-teacher interview.
“Do you feel better now?” one of the teachers asked. “Yes, thanks. I had a UTI, but Jeff felt too embarrassed to say it,” I explained. The teacher replied, “Oh, you poor thing. I get UTIs, too. Touch wood, I haven’t had one for awhile.”
Women are tough. Women understand. We work, despite harassment and wage gaps. We bear children, we care for them, we care for people who we know and don’t know. We are diminished and dismissed and doubted. We suffer in silence and embarrassment because of our anatomy.
Everyone, I have a UTI. And I don’t care if you know. But I hope that you care, and at the very least, that you’ll believe me.
Carla Gee is a writer and illustrator, living in Canberra. You can follow her on Instagram, @bycarlagee.