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What is interstitial cystitis?

Woman talking to her GP in their surgery
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Interstitial cystitis is a type of chronic cystitis that causes pelvic pain and problems urinating. It’s also known as “painful bladder syndrome”.

You might be experiencing interstitial cystitis if you regularly have pain in your pelvis and need to urinate frequently. To learn more, read on.

Cystitis vs interstitial cystitis


Cystitis is a really common type of urinary tract infection (UTI) that causes pain when urinating. It usually occurs after bacteria from faeces enters the urethra and travels to the bladder, something which happens more easily in women than in men.

Cystitis doesn’t always need medical treatment as it can clear up on its own within a few days – if it doesn’t, your GP may prescribe a short course of antibiotics. You can learn more by reading this article: What is cystitis?

Interstitial cystitis

Interstitial cystitis is a chronic condition that causes symptoms similar to cystitis, but on an ongoing or recurring basis. It’s far more common in women than in men, and can have a significant impact on your daily life.

This condition isn’t well understood, which means we don’t fully know what causes it to happen, or how best to treat it. Although there is no cure for interstitial cystitis, the symptoms can be managed with medication, physical therapy and lifestyle changes.

Key differences between cystitis and interstitial cystitis


Cystitis is usually caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract, which can happen during sex or – in women – when wiping from back to front. It’s more common in:

  • People with a urinary catheter
  • Pregnant women
  • Menopausal women
  • People with diabetes
  • People with conditions that block the urinary tract
  • People with a weakened immune system
  • Men with an enlarged prostate

Interstitial cystitis doesn’t have an obvious cause and doesn’t involve an obvious infection of the bladder. It’s thought that it may be caused by damage to the bladder lining, a problem with the pelvic floor muscles, allergies, or a problem with the immune system.

Another theory is that it’s a symptom of another condition like fibromyalgia or IBS.

Symptoms of cystitis

Symptoms of interstitial cystitis


Cystitis may clear up on its own in less than a week. If it does require treatment, a short course of antibiotics should treat symptoms within a few days.

Interstitial cystitis is an ongoing condition causing recurring episodes of symptoms over many months and years. If you’re a woman, you might find that symptoms worsen during your period.


Cystitis doesn’t always require medical treatment, but when it does, antibiotics are very effective. This is because the cause is nearly always a bacterial infection.

There is no cure for Interstitial cystitis, but the condition can be managed with a combination of treatments which you can read about below.

Treatment for interstitial cystitis

Lifestyle changes

The following may help you manage your symptoms:

  • Reducing stress with exercise, relaxation techniques and warm baths
  • Avoiding foods that seem to trigger your symptoms or make them worse – but speak to your GP first if you’re planning on making big changes to your diet
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking less before you go to bed
  • Taking regular toilet breaks to stop your bladder becoming too full


Several types of tablet and liquid medication can be used to treat IC, including:

  • Over-the-counter painkillers and antihistamines
  • Prescription painkillers
  • Medicines to reduce the urgency to urinate

Physical treatments

Some physical treatments can help with IC, including:

  • Physiotherapy to massage the pelvic floor muscles
  • Bladder retraining to help you hold in more urine
  • TENS machines


Therapy or counselling can be helpful if you’re struggling to cope with your symptoms. You can also get support by joining a Bladder Health UK Local Support Group.

What to do if you think you have interstitial cystitis

The NHS advice is to see your GP if you “if you have persistent pelvic pain or you notice a change in your usual peeing pattern”. It may be that your symptoms point to another condition like an STI or irritable bowel syndrome, which is why it’s really important to get checked.

If you don’t have time to see your GP in person, consider using our VideoGP service, where you can speak to a doctor in as little as 30 minutes using an app on your smartphone.

Cystitis treatments