Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are one of the most common medical complaints in the U.S. According to the Urology Care Foundation, UTIs cause more than eight million visits to the doctor each year. Although they occur more often in women, anyone can get a UTI.
Here’s what you need to know about UTIs.
What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?
A UTI is an infection of any part of the urinary tract. UTIs happen more often in women. In fact, 50% of all women will get a UTI at some point in their lives.
A UTI can develop in any part of the urinary tract, including your bladder, ureters, kidneys, or urethra. They happen most often in the bladder, so sometimes people call them bladder infections.
There are two types of UTIs.
- Lower tract UTI — affects the bladder or urethra. This is the most common type of UTI.
- Upper tract UTI — affects the ureters or kidneys. This is a more serious problem and can cause permanent damage to the kidneys if not treated right away. A kidney infection can become life-threatening if bacteria from the infection enter the bloodstream.
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Bacteria are the most common cause of UTIs. Rarely, a fungus enters the urinary tract and causes infection.
E. coli bacteria that live in the intestines cause most UTIs. They can easily travel to the urinary tract, especially in women.
A UTI produces a number of uncomfortable symptoms. These include:
- Pain or burning when urinating.
- The urge to urinate frequently.
- The urge to urinate without being able to “go.”
- Cloudy urine.
- Bad-smelling urine.
- Feelings of pressure in the lower abdomen.
Sometimes a UTI may move to your kidneys. Symptoms of a kidney infection include regular UTI symptoms, plus one or more of the following:
- Pain in your lower back or sides.
A kidney infection is a more serious problem, and you should get medical help right away.
UTI Risk Factors
Anyone, including children, can develop a UTI, but certain factors raise your chances of getting one. Risk factors include:
- Being a woman. Women are more likely than men to develop UTIs because their urethra is shorter. Bacteria have less distance to travel to infect a woman’s bladder. Also, a woman’s urethral opening is closer to the rectum and the bacteria that cause bladder infections.
- Advanced age. Elderly people, especially those who have incontinence problems or wear adult diapers, are more prone to UTIs. Their UTI symptoms may be different from younger people. Older people with a UTI may experience confusion, lethargy, and/or anxiety.
- Not drinking enough water. Your body needs lots of water to flush out harmful bacteria. If you’re well-hydrated, your urine will be light yellow to clear in color. If you’re dehydrated, your urine will be dark yellow to light brown.
- Being sexually active. Bacteria can pass into the urinary tract during sexual intercourse.
- Pregnancy. Hormonal changes in pregnancy make it easier for bacteria to spread in the urinary system.
- Using certain types of birth control. Diaphragms, which push against the urethra, may make it more difficult to empty your bladder completely. When your bladder doesn’t empty completely, it is more likely to retain bacteria, which can cause an infection. Some spermicides can cause skin irritation that leads to bacterial growth.
- A weakened immune system. Diseases like diabetes and HIV lower your body’s natural immunity, making you more susceptible to bacterial infections.
- Using a catheter. This is a tube that drains urine from your bladder. Using a catheter makes you more prone to bacterial infections. That’s because bacteria can travel through the catheter and cause an infection in your urinary tract.
- Blockages in the urinary tract. An enlarged prostate can lead incomplete bladder emptying, and stones in the ureter can cause backflow of urine to the kidneys. Either of these may increase risk for infection.
- Menopause. Lower estrogen levels may lead to changes in the lining of the vagina and bladder that normally act as a natural defense mechanism against bacteria that may cause UTIs, making you more susceptible to infection.
- Previous UTIs. UTIs tend to recur. If you’ve had one in the past, you’re more likely to get one in the future.
To diagnose a UTI, your doctor will ask you about your medical history and take a urine sample. They will test it for bacteria and the presence of white blood cells, which fight infection.
If you have recurrent UTIs, your primary care doctor may refer you to a urologist for further testing.
Doctors usually treat UTIs with antibiotics. Your symptoms will probably clear up in a few days. But even if you feel better, you should take the entire course of medicine to make sure the infection is gone.
Your doctor may also prescribe pain medicine for relief from UTI symptoms.
How to Prevent UTIs
It’s impossible to prevent every UTI. But there are steps you can take to decrease your chances of getting one. It’s important to:
- Drink enough water. This helps flush bacteria out of your urinary system.
- Urinate regularly. Holding urine in the bladder can lead to bacterial growth.
- Urinate after sex. This helps flush out bacteria.
- Practice good hygiene. Wash your genitals and anal area, especially after exercise, to prevent bacterial growth. For women, wipe from front to back after using the toilet. Likewise, clean the genital area before and after sex.
- Wear cotton underwear. Other types of fabric don’t breathe as well, trapping moisture and bacteria. Likewise, choose loose-fitting clothes that allow air to circulate.
- Consider a different form of birth control. Diaphragms and spermicides can raise your chances of getting a UTI. Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of different forms of birth control.
If you have frequent/recurrent infections, your doctor may recommend more aggressive preventative options such as prescription medications, over-the-counter supplements/probiotics, or vaginal estrogen if you are post-menopausal.
While having a UTI is unpleasant, in most cases doctors can treat it quickly. Don’t delay calling your doctor or going to an urgent care facility if you think you have a UTI.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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