Urinary tract infections at a glance
- A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the system that processes and carries urine from the body (kidneys, ureters, bladder, urethra).
- Bladder and urethral infections are the most common kinds of UTI.
- Women experience UTIs more often than men.
- Most UTIs are treated with antibiotics.
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What is a urinary tract infection?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in part of the urinary system, which includes the kidneys, the ureters (tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder), the bladder or the urethra (tube that carries urine out of the body). Most infections are in the bladder or the urethra, the parts of the urinary tract that are closest to the outside of the body.
Bladder infections are the most common kind of UTI. These infections can be painful, but they are usually not serious if they are treated right away. It is important to seek treatment for a bladder infection or other UTI so the kidneys do not become infected. Infections in the kidney are serious and are often associated with fevers. Kidney infections can cause lasting damage.
UTIs affect women much more often than men. They also sometimes affect children. Children might have slightly different symptoms. It’s important that a child with a suspected UTI see a doctor right away, as children are at greatest risk of developing serious kidney problems from UTIs.
A bladder infection is sometimes called cystitis, which is most often caused by E. coli bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract. An infection of the urethra may be called urethritis.
Causes of urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) usually occur when bacteria gets into the body through the urethra, the tube that carries urine outside the body from the bladder. Bacteria that are normally present in the large intestine and are in stool can travel from the anus through the urethra to the bladder and kidneys to create an infection.
Because women have shorter urethras, and because the urethra is nearer the anus in women, women get bladder infections and other UTIs more often than men do.
Other causes of UTIs or bladder infections may include:
- Sexual activity, which may push bacteria into the urethra.
- Having diabetes or being pregnant.
- Having any condition that impairs the flow of urine from the bladder (enlarged prostate gland, kidney stones).
- Having a catheter inserted (a flexible tube inserted through the urethra to allow urine to drain).
- Having a bacterial infection in the blood or lymph system (an unusual cause of kidney infection or bladder infection).
- Inheriting genes that make repeated UTIs more likely (among women).
When older men experience UTIs, the infection may be related to other prostate conditions, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or prostatitis.
Symptoms of urinary tract infection
A urinary tract infection (UTI) may have one or more of the following symptoms:
- Pain or burning during urination
- A strong urge to urinate (sometimes without passing much urine)
- Cloudy or bad-smelling urine, or urine that is pink or red (a sign of blood in urine)
- Pain in the lower belly, in the pelvis (for women), or in the rectum (for men)
- Pain on one side of the back under the ribs (where kidneys are located)
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting.
Other health conditions also could cause some of these symptoms. A person who has a kidney infection will probably have more severe symptoms.
Treatment of urinary tract infections
A physician will likely take a urine sample to verify if a person has a urinary tract infection. A laboratory will check this urine sample for the presence of bacteria that cause the infection.
If the doctor suspects a person is experiencing frequent infections because of an abnormality in the urinary tract, he or she may order imaging of the urinary tract. This might include an ultrasound or computerized tomography (CT) scan. The doctor also might perform a cystoscopy, which is using a scope to look inside the urethra and bladder.
If a physician thinks the most likely cause of urinary symptoms is a UTI, he or she might prescribe antibiotics immediately to fight the infection. Whatever the root cause of the infection, several treatment options are available.
Many adults can resolve minor UTIs at home, without a doctor’s help. Home treatments for UTIs and bladder infections include:
- Drinking plenty of water. This dilutes the urine and helps wash bacteria out of the urinary system. This is especially important during the first 24 hours after a person experiences symptoms. Some people believe that compounds in cranberry juice also can help to fight UTIs.
- Urinating often. Empty the bladder completely by urinating frequently.
- Using heat to reduce pain. Some people find relief from hot baths or placing a heating pad on the abdomen.
- Using over-the-counter pain relievers. Non-prescription pain relievers can reduce pain from urinary symptoms.
People whose symptoms last longer than a day or two or whose symptoms are severe should call a physician. People should also call a physician about urinary symptoms if they are pregnant, have diabetes, have an immune condition or are over age 65.
Most UTIs can be eliminated successfully with antibiotic treatment. Physicians will prescribe different antibiotics, depending on a person’s health and the type of bacteria. At the same time, physicians will recommend that a person with a UTI follow the home treatment steps above.
Most people find that antibiotics relieve their symptoms within a few days. Completing the entire course of antibiotics is important to make sure the infection is gone.
In addition to getting rid of symptoms and eliminating the bacteria, antibiotic treatment also can prevent rare complications, which might include sepsis (a life-threatening complication of an infection) or kidney damage. If a woman is pregnant, antibiotic treatment is important to protect the fetus as well as the woman’s health.
Treatment if the condition gets worse or comes back
When a UTI comes back even after antibiotic treatment, it is important for a physician to evaluate the situation. Many times, the person has a new infection. Occasionally, another condition is causing the infection.
Some women are susceptible to getting UTIs over and over again, which can require extended antibiotic treatment. If the infection returns as soon as the woman stops taking antibiotics, doctors usually prescribe preventive antibiotics.
When men experience recurrent UTIs, the cause often is chronic prostatitis, or prostate infection. This condition requires medical care.
Sometimes a person who has a more severe UTI, such as a kidney infection, might require intravenous antibiotics (antibiotics delivered into the bloodstream through a vein). These antibiotics usually are delivered in the hospital. These problems are uncommon in healthy people.