Urinary tract infections in children at a glance
- A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the urinary system that processes and carries urine from the body.
- UTIs are the most common bacterial infection in children, with about 8 percent of girls and 2 percent of boys having at least one before the age of 5.
- Most UTIs in children are treated with antibiotics.
- UTIs can cause kidney damage if left undiagnosed and untreated.
What is a urinary tract infection?
The urinary tract is the part of the body that makes and carries urine out of the body. In this system, the kidneys filter waste from the bloodstream and produce urine to expel that waste from the body. Urine from the kidneys passes through ureter tubes to the bladder, which expels urine via the urethra at the tip of the penis in men and near the top of the vagina in women.
Children and adults get UTIs from the same cause. When bacteria from stool gets into the urinary tract, it can lead to an infection. The infection can occur anywhere in the urinary system but most commonly occurs in the bladder and urethra, as these are closest to the source of the bacteria from the rectum.
If left untreated, UTIs can lead to kidney damage, especially in children younger than age 6.
UTIs in children
Urinary tract infections, including bladder and kidney infections, are relatively common in children. UTIs are the most common bacterial infection in children under 2 years of age. About 8 percent of girls and about 2 percent of boys have at least one UTI before the age of 5.
Newborns, premature babies and infants with a systemic problem that blocks urine flow are the most likely to experience urinary tract infections.
There are many ways to help prevent UTIs in children including:
- Frequent diaper changes in infants and toddlers can help prevent the spread of bacteria that causes UTIs.
- Teaching children to wipe from front to rear and how to practice good hygiene.
- Avoiding bubble baths in school-age children.
- Giving children plenty of fluids to drink without caffeine, which can irritate the bladder.
Symptoms of UTIs in children
Clinical signs and symptoms of a urinary tract infection depend on the age of the child. It can be difficult in infants and toddlers to identify a urinary infection.
Symptoms in young children might include:
- Unexplained fever
- Strange or foul-smelling urine
- Lack of appetite
Older children are likely to have symptoms similar to those in adults, including:
- Pain or burning during urination
- Frequent need to urinate
- Having accidents (losing control of the bladder)
- Urine that is pink, red, cloudy or smells bad
- Lower belly pain
- Pain in the back just below the ribs and above the waist (where the kidneys are).
It is important that the child see a doctor if any of the above symptoms occur.
Diagnosis and treatment of UTIs in children
A doctor will do a physical exam and take a urine sample that a lab will study and evaluate. Meanwhile, he/she will probably prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
The length of treatment depends on the extent of child’s infection and where it occurs in the urinary tract. For lower UTIs (bladder, prostate and urethra), antibiotics are prescribed for about three days. For upper UTIs (kidney), a 7 to 10-day course of antibiotics is usually recommended.
For children who are very ill or have an impaired immune system, or for infants younger than 3 months old, the physician might inject antibiotics. In serious cases, the physician might order a course of intravenous (IV) antibiotics.
Young children are at the greatest risk of UTIs causing kidney damage, which can result in long-term problems. These infections also can develop into sepsis, a dangerous complication of infection throughout the body. For these reasons, it is very important that children who might have a UTI see a physician right away.
When treated at the first signs of symptoms, urinary tract infections in children usually go away quickly. However, if a child keeps getting infections, a doctor may run further tests such as x-rays or ultrasounds to rule out more serious conditions.
For example, kids may be diagnosed with vesicoureteral reflux (VUR), in which urine flows backward from the bladder into the kidneys, increasing the chance of a child getting a UTI.