I hate orange urine

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a very common problem, especially in women. The link provided offers some very good information, but briefly, women’s urethrae (the tube the urine comes out of), are closer to the rectum than those of men (who have a built-in “spacer”). This allows bacteria from the colon to creep over to the urinary tract and cause burning, pelvic pain, frequent urination, etc. I treat UTIs daily. Most are uncomplicated, but some are quite serious (usually in the elderly and chronically ill). As medical problems go, I love UTIs. When a healthy, young woman comes in with the usual symptoms, a quick test can confirm the diagnosis, and, usually, three days of inexpensive antibiotics fixes it. The patient is happy, I’m happy, everyone’s happy. But then there’s the orange stuff.

A few years back, a medication called “phenazopyridine” became more widely available as an over-the-counter drug. It is marketed to treat the symptoms of UTIs. It turns urine and other body fluids bright orange. This medication is useful for reducing the symptoms of UTIs, but does not cure them. The FDA does mandate certain labeling for the OTC preparations, but I can tell you from experience, the subtlety of this distinction is, well, subtle. Fortunately, you don’t have to rely on my experience. Someone bothered to study the question. Most patients do not realize the difference between treating the symptoms and treating the disease. This leads to delay of treatment, and the infection can become more serious. To add insult to injury, phenazopyridine’s orange pigment interferes with the most common tests we use to diagnose UTIs.

In discussions of medical ethics, the concepts of “paternalism” and “patient autonomy” are often thought of as being in opposition to each other. It is sometimes in the name of autonomy that medications are made more easily available to patients by skipping the physician prescribing process. (Also, over the counter meds are quite profitable). This can be very useful for medications such as ibuprofen, or Plan B (post-coital contraception), but any time you cut out the expert, certain risks accrue. Paternalism isn’t the opposite of autonomy. The two work together. Patients see me for my expertise. They don’t consult me about movies, art, or (thankfully) religion—just medicine. They do this because I’m the one with the training. Giving a patient knowledgeable advice is not paternalistic—it’s what they came here for. I don’t paternalistically command my patients to do anything. I dole out advice, and they are free to follow it or not.

Orange urine not only removes the expert, it fools the patient. It does not increase autonomy, it actually decreases it by deceiving the patient, perhaps causing them to become more ill.

<End of rant>