Bladder Cancer vs. Bladder Infection: What Are the Differences?

Bladder Cancer vs. Bladder Infection: What Are the Differences? Image

Bladder cancer is often mistaken for a bladder infection. They share many of the same symptoms—increased urgency, frequency, and pain with urination. Bladder cancer is often mistaken for a bladder infection because they share many of the same symptoms. Patients with either condition may experience increased urgency, frequency, and pain with urination or incontinence—the inability to hold in

Bladder cancer is often mistaken for a bladder infection because they share many of the same symptoms. Patients with either condition may experience increased urgency, frequency, and pain with urination or incontinence—the inability to hold in urine.

Your bladder is the organ located in the urinary tract. It is the waystation between your kidneys, which filter waste out of the bloodstream to make urine, and your urethra, which is the tube that your urine passes through when you urinate. The bladder collects urine and stores it until you’re ready to release it.

Two common causes of dysfunction of the urinary system and the bladder are bladder cancer and bladder infections. These two conditions have some overlapping symptoms, but bladder infections are much more common.

This article will briefly review the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of bladder infections and bladder cancer. It will highlight how these two conditions differ and the easiest ways to tell them apart. 

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Symptoms

Symptoms of bladder cancer and bladder infection can be quite similar. Both conditions cause changes to urination, including feeling the need to urinate urgently, urinate more frequently, pain when urinating, or an inability to control your urine. 

Symptoms of Bladder Infection

The main symptom of a bladder infection is a burning feeling when you urinate. You may also feel an intense urge to urinate but then be able to let out little urine when you try to relieve yourself.

Symptoms of Bladder Cancer 

Common symptoms of bladder cancer, on the other hand, are slightly more complex. 

The most common symptom of bladder cancer is a change in the color of your urine. Your urine may become orange, pink, rusty brown, dark red, or bright red in color, which would indicate there’s blood in your urine.

Blood in the urine is also a common symptom of a bladder infection, so it is one that is often misdiagnosed in women presenting with bladder cancer.

Other symptoms common in cases of bladder cancer include:

  • The need to urinate more frequently, even when your bladder isn’t full
  • Pain—including burning, or general discomfort—when you urinate
  • Pain in the lower back, mid-back, or side
  • Urinating when you’re not meaning to
  • Trouble getting the urine stream started
  • Feeling like something is blocking the flow of urine

Causes

While bladder cancer and bladder infections both impact the urinary system and show similar symptoms, they’re fundamentally different dysfunctions. 

Causes of Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer is when cells of the bladder lining grow out of control and start spreading to other parts of the organ and, potentially, other parts of the body. This growth can disrupt the normal functioning of the bladder and other essential organ systems. If untreated, bladder cancer can be deadly.

Causes of Bladder Infection

Blader infections, sometimes called cystitis or urinary tract infections (UTI), are when a germ—usually bacteria—takes up residence in the bladder. Bladder infections are the most common type of UTI, but UTIs can develop in any part of the urinary tract. 

The infection causes inflammation and disrupts the normal working of the urinary tract. If left untreated, these infections can also spread to the kidneys, which is more dangerous and painful.

Bladder infections are caused by bacteria from other parts of the body entering the urinary tract. In females, this bacteria typically comes from the vagina or the bowel. In males, bladder infections are usually due to issues like enlarged prostate, which restrict normal urine flow.

Diagnosis

To diagnose bladder cancer or a bladder infection, a medical professional will start by asking you about your symptoms and your personal and family health history. They’ll likely also perform a physical exam. 

Diagnosis of Bladder Infection

To diagnose a bladder infection, the medical professional will likely order a set of tests on your urine to look for signs of infection.

Tests would include a urinalysis to test if bacteria are in your bladder or urinary tract and if your immune system is fighting an infection. They may also use a urine culture test to determine what kind of bacteria is causing the infection.

If your bladder infection returns or you’re getting many UTIs, a medical professional may want to look for underlying issues in the urinary tract. 

These tests include using a camera on the end of a lighted tube to visualize inside the urinary tract, a procedure called a cystoscopy. Or they may order something called urodynamic testing, which shows them how well urine moves through the different parts of your urinary tract.

Diagnosis of Bladder Cancer

Along with the tests done if a bladder infection is suspected, a medical professional diagnosing bladder cancer will likely order or perform several more tests.

During your visit, they may perform an internal exam of the vagina or rectum to see if they can feel any lumps in your pelvic area.

They may order a set of X-rays called an intravenous pyelogram, which lets them check the kidneys, ureters, and bladder for cancers.

It’s also possible the medical professional would order a biopsy of the bladder during the cystoscopy exam. This biopsy removes a sample of the inner lining of the bladder in the area they think might be cancerous. The surgeon may even remove the entire tumor.

A specialist doctor called a pathologist then looks at the cells in the biopsy sample for signs of cancer. 

Treatment

Treatments for bladder infection are very different than treatment for bladder cancer. So getting the correct diagnosis early is essential to ensure you’re getting the right treatment for cancer while it’s still in the early stages.

Bladder Cancer Treatment

Bladder cancers are treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy (including BCG), and targeted therapy. Depending on how advanced bladder cancer is when first diagnosed, an oncologist will prescribe different treatments. Multiple types of treatments, at the same time or in succession, may be laid out in your treatment plan

Bladder Infection Treatment

Bladder infections are typically treated with antibiotics to help your body fight off the bacteria causing the infection. Your medical professional will choose an antibiotic based on the type of bacteria and any previous reactions you’ve had to antibiotics.

You can help your bladder infection heal more quickly by drinking a lot of water and urinating often. Also, use a heating pad to ease any discomfort you may be feeling in your back or abdomen. 

Prevention

Because these two urinary tract conditions have drastically different underlying causes, they also have other risk factors and things you can do to prevent them. 

Preventing Bladder Infections

There are a few things you can do to prevent bladder infections:

  • Consider switching your birth control if you use diaphragms, non-lubricated condoms, or spermicide.
  • Wipe front to back after urinating or defecating.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Don’t rush your urinating time.
  • Urinate after sex, and clean the genital area before and after sex.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing with natural, breathable fibers.

Preventing Bladder Cancer

Preventing bladder cancer, though, is a different story. It may be due to differences in your genes or exposure to specific cancer treatments.

There are some potentially preventable risk factors for bladder cancer. Things you can do to reduce your risk of developing bladder cancer include:

  • Quit using tobacco, especially cigarettes. Half of bladder cancer patients have a history of smoking.
  • Limit your exposure to paints, dyes, metals, or petroleum products in the workplace.
  • Avoid the Chinese herb called Aristolochia fangchi.
  • Avoid water that contains arsenic and chlorine-treated water.

Summary

Bladder infections and bladder cancer have some overlapping symptoms in changes in urination. Bladder infections are caused by germs, usually bacteria, and can be diagnosed with urinalysis and urine culture. Treatment is usually with antibiotics.

Bladder cancer is caused by cells undergoing changes that result in them growing out of control. Tests for it include a urinalysis, but a biopsy is needed to make a diagnosis. It can be treated with surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy (including BCG), and targeted therapy.

A Word From Verywell

Getting the right diagnosis of your bladder condition is important, as bladder cancer gets more difficult to treat as it advances, reducing the survival rate. About 84,000 people develop bladder cancer every year, according to the National Cancer Institute's SEER database. That means 2.4% of people will get bladder cancer during their lives.

Bladder infections are much more common than bladder cancer. Between 40% and 60% of women develop a UTI at some point in their lives. Men are less prone to developing bladder infections; when they do, the infection may often be due to an underlying issue like an enlarged prostate.

Whatever is causing your bladder condition, see your healthcare professional so you get the correct treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are bladder infections common with cancer?

    Cancer or cancer treatments may disrupt the immune system, which could leave you open to more infections than you would get normally. These infections can include urinary tract infections or bladder infections.

  • How can you tell the difference between UTI and cancer?

    When comparing urinary tract infection (UTI) and bladder cancer there are many overlapping symptoms. Some of the symptoms that are more common in bladder cancer than in UTIs include blood in the urine and pain in the back or side.

  • Do frequent bladder infections mean cancer?

    Frequent bladder infections can have many causes. If hygiene and lifestyle interventions don’t help, it’s possibly just due to anatomy. Females have a shorter urethra and a shorter distance from the anus to the opening of the urethra, making it easier for bacteria to travel from one to the other. That makes bladder infections more common in women. Males are actually more likely to get bladder cancer than females.

  • Can bladder infections become cancerous?

    Bladder infections can’t become cancer. However, it is possible that repeated chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs) may be a risk factor for bladder cancer. This is especially true for a rare type of UTI called schistosomiasis that is caused by a parasite. The research into bacterial causes of UTIs and their role in the development of bladder cancer is still unclear.

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