What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?
About half of women will get a urinary tract infection or UTI at some point in life. It happens when germs infect the system that carries urine out of your body — the kidneys, bladder, and the tubes that connect them. Bladder infections are common and usually not serious if treated promptly. But if the infection spreads to the kidneys, it can cause more serious illness.
UTI Symptoms: Bladder Infection
Most UTIs are bladder infections. Symptoms include:
- Pain or burning during urination
- The urge to urinate often
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Urine that is cloudy or foul-smelling
- Some people may have no symptoms
UTI Symptoms: Kidney Infection
An untreated bladder infection can spread to the kidneys. Signs of this include:
- Pain on either side of the lower back
- Fever and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
The main danger associated with untreated UTIs is that the infection may spread from the bladder to one or both kidneys. When bacteria attack the kidneys, they can cause damage that will permanently reduce kidney function. In people who already have kidney problems, this can raise the risk of kidney failure. There’s also a small chance that the infection may enter the bloodstream and spread to other organs
How Do UTIs Begin?
Many types of bacteria live in the intestines and the genital area, but this is not true of the urinary system. In fact, urine is sterile. So when errant bacteria, such as the E. coli shown here, is accidentally introduced into the urinary system, it can start a UTI. Typically, bacteria travel up the urethra to the bladder, where an infection can take hold. Women are more susceptible than men, probably because they have shorter urethras.
What Boosts Your Risk?
UTIs are most common in sexually active women. Other factors that may increase your risk include:
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Taking frequent baths
- Holding your urine
- Kidney stones
Urinary Tract Infections in Men
Men are much less likely than women to get UTIs. When it does happen, it’s often related to another underlying medical condition, such as a kidney stone or an enlarged prostate.
The first step in diagnosing a UTI is usually a simple urine test called a urinalysis. It looks for bacteria, as well as abnormal counts of white and red blood cells. The dipstick test provides quick results. Your doctor may also send your urine to a lab for culture to confirm the type of bacteria. At-home test kits can help detect a UTI, but are not 100% accurate. Be sure to go over the results and your symptoms with your doctor.
Treating Recurrent UTIs
Some women are prone to getting UTIs over and over again. If you have three or more a year, talk to your doctor about how to prevent or minimize these infections. Your options may include:
- Taking a low dose of antibiotics long-term
- Taking a single antibiotic dose after sex
- Taking antibiotics promptly as self-treatment when symptoms appear
Here are several strategies to reduce your risk of UTIs:
- Drink plenty of water.
- Visit the toilet before and after sex.
- Wipe from front to back.
- Avoid feminine hygiene sprays.
- Take showers instead of baths.
The Cranberry Connection
Maybe Mom told you that cranberry juice cures a UTI. She’s close. Some studies suggest it can prevent, but not treat an infection, and is more effective in young and middle-aged women. Cranberries contain a substance that prevents E. coli bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. If you don’t like the taste of cranberry juice, capsules or tablets may work, too. People with a history of kidney stones should check with a doctor, first.