Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

A urinary tract infection, or UTI, is an infection in any part of your urinary system, which includes your kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra.

If you're a woman, your chance of getting a urinary tract infection is high. Some experts rank your lifetime risk of getting one as high as 1 in 2, with many women having repeat infections, sometimes for years. About 1 in 10 men will get a UTI in their lifetime.

Here's how to handle UTIs and how to make it less likely you'll get one in the first place.

Symptoms of UTIs

The symptoms of a UTI can include:

  • A burning feeling when you pee
  • A frequent or intense urge to pee, even though little comes out when you do
  • Cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling pee
  • Feeling tired or shaky
  • Fever or chills (a sign that the infection may have reached your kidneys)
  • Pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen

Types of UTIs

An infection can happen in different parts of your urinary tract. Each type has a different name, based on where it is.

  • Cystitis (bladder): You might feel like you need to pee a lot, or it might hurt when you pee. You might also have lower belly pain and cloudy or bloody urine.
  • Pyelonephritis (kidneys): This can cause fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and pain in your upper back or side.
  • Urethritis (urethra): This can cause a discharge and burning when you pee.

Causes of UTIs

UTIs are a key reason why doctors tell women to wipe from front to back after using the bathroom. The urethra -- the tube that takes pee from the bladder to the outside of the body -- is close to the anus. Bacteria from the large intestine, such as E. coli, can sometimes get out of your anus and into your urethra. From there, they can travel up to your bladder and, if the infection isn't treated, can continue on to infect your kidneys. Women have shorter urethras than men. That makes it easier for bacteria to get to their bladders. Having sex can introduce bacteria into your urinary tract, too.

Some women are more likely to get UTIs because of their genes. The shape of their urinary tracts makes others more likely to be infected. Women with diabetes may be at higher risk because their weakened immune systems make them less able to fight off infections. Other conditions that can boost your risk include hormone changes, multiple sclerosis, and anything that affects urine flow, such as kidney stones, a stroke, and a spinal cord injury.

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UTI Tests and Diagnosis

If you suspect that you have a urinary tract infection, go to the doctor. You'll give a urine sample to test for UTI-causing bacteria.

If you get frequent UTIs and your doctor suspects a problem in your urinary tract, they might take a closer look with an ultrasound, a CT scan, or an MRI scan. They might also use a long, flexible tube called a cystoscope to look inside your urethra and bladder.

Treatments for UTIs

Antibiotics are the most common treatment for urinary tract infections. As always, be sure to take all of your prescribed medicine, even after you start to feel better. Drink lots of water to help flush the bacteria from your body. Your doctor may also give you a medication to soothe pain. You might find a heating pad helpful.

Cranberry juice is often promoted to prevent or treat UTIs. The red berry contains a tannin that might prevent E. coli bacteria -- the most common cause of urinary tract infections -- from sticking to the walls of your bladder, where they can cause an infection. But research hasn’t found that it does much to reduce infections.

Experts are also looking at new ways to treat and prevent UTIs, including vaccines and things that boost your immune system.

Chronic UTIs

If a man gets a UTI, he’s likely to get another. About 1 in 5 women have a second urinary tract infection, and some have them again and again. In most cases, each infection is brought on by a different type or strain of bacteria. But some bacteria can invade your body's cells and multiply, creating a colony of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They then travel out of the cells and re-invade your urinary tract.

Chronic UTI Treatment

If you have three or more UTIs a year, ask your doctor to recommend a treatment plan. Some options include taking:

  • A low dose of an antibiotic over a longer period to help prevent repeat infections
  • A single dose of an antibiotic after sex, which is a common infection trigger
  • Antibiotics for 1 or 2 days every time symptoms appear

At-home urine tests, which you can get without a prescription, can help you decide whether you need to call your doctor. If you're taking antibiotics for a UTI, you can test to see whether they've cured the infection (although you still need to finish your prescription). Contact your doctor if the test is positive or if your symptoms continue, despite a negative test result.

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How to Prevent UTI Re-Infection

Following some tips can help you avoid getting another UTI:

  • Empty your bladder often as soon as you feel the need to pee; don't rush, and be sure you've emptied your bladder completely.
  • Wipe from front to back after you use the toilet.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Choose showers over baths.
  • Stay away from feminine hygiene sprays, scented douches, and scented bath products; they'll only increase irritation.
  • Cleanse your genital area before sex.
  • Pee after sex to flush out any bacteria that may have entered your urethra.
  • If you use a diaphragm, unlubricated condoms, or spermicidal jelly for birth control, you may want to switch to another method. Diaphragms can increase bacteria growth, while unlubricated condoms and spermicides can irritate your urinary tract. All can make UTI symptoms more likely.
  • Keep your genital area dry by wearing cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes. Don’t wear tight jeans and nylon underwear; they can trap moisture, creating the perfect environment for bacteria growth.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Nazia Q Bandukwala, DO on October 08, 2019

Sources

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Fihn, S. New England Journal of Medicine, 2003. 

Pinkner, J. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov 21, 2006. 

Chromek M. Nature Medicine, Published online Jun 4, 2006. 

Jepson, R. Cochrane Database Syst Rev., 2004. 

WebMD A-Z Guide: "Urinary Tract Infections in Teens and Adults." 

Medscape: "Understanding UTIs-The Basics." 

National Institute of Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK): "Urinary Tract Infections in Adults." 

American Urological Association: "Urinary Tract Infections in Adults." 

WebMD Medical Reference: "Home Test for Urinary Tract Infections."

Mayo Clinic: “Urinary tract infection (UTI).”

Stanford Health Care: “Urinary Tract Infection.”

UpToDate: “Recurrent Simple Cystitis in Women.”

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