What is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria enters the urethra and infects the urinary tract. The most common symptom of UTIs is a frequent and urgent need to pee.
A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria enters the urethra and infects the urinary tract. The most common symptom of UTIs is a frequent and urgent need to pee.

A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria enters the urethra and infects the urinary tract. This bacteria mostly comes from the skin of the rectum. Urinary tract infections may affect a number of parts of the urinary tract. However, the most commonly affected part is the bladder.

You are more likely to get a urinary tract infection if you are a woman or a girl. This is because females have a shorter urethra than males. In addition to being shorter, the urethras are closer to the rectum, making it easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract.

A urinary tract infection may also affect your kidneys (pyelonephritis). These cases are less common but are more serious than bladder infections.

Symptoms of urinary tract infections

The most common symptom of UTIs is a frequent and urgent need to pee. You may even feel the need to do so after just coming from the bathroom. Other signs and symptoms of urinary tract infections include:

  • Pain or a burning sensation when you pee
  • Presence of pus or blood in your urine
  • Urine that looks cloudy or smells bad
  • Soreness, pressure, or cramps in your lower belly, side, or back

If the infection has progressed to your kidneys, your symptoms may also include:

Children younger than two years old with a kidney infection may not show any signs of the condition. They may only have a high fever and not feel pain or experience problems with urination. In some cases, older people may also not show the typical signs and symptoms. You might only notice confusion or muddled speech.

Causes of urinary tract infections

The cause of UTIs is bacteria in the urinary tract. Certain risk factors can make you more likely to contract a urinary tract infection. These risk factors include:

  • If you’ve had a UTI before, you are more likely to develop another infection. 
  • If you are overweight or obese, you are more at risk for a UTI.
  • If you have diabetes, you are more likely to get a UTI.
  • The use of spermicides or a diaphragm can put you more at risk for the infection.
  • If you have kidney stones or other obstructions in your urinary tract, you are more likely to get a UTI.

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When to see a doctor for urinary tract infections

A urinary tract infection can be life-threatening if left untreated or if it affects the kidneys. If you notice any signs of pyelonephritis, it is important that you see your doctor for examination and advice on management and treatment.

Another sign that should prompt you to see a doctor is when you see blood in your urine. This could be a sign of a urinary tract infection, but it could also be due to a more serious issue in your kidneys.

Diagnosing urinary tract infections

When you visit the doctor, they will likely ask about your symptoms, do a physical examination, and take a urine sample. The urine is examined under a microscope for bacteria or white blood cells to determine if there is an infection.

Your doctor may also take a urine culture to identify bacteria and yeast in your urine that might be causing your infection. This can help them decide which antibiotic to prescribe.

Treatments for urinary tract infections

After thoroughly examining your condition, your doctor should know if the infection is just in the bladder, if it has spread to the kidneys, and how severe it is. That information will guide them in deciding the right treatment measures for you. Depending on your exact condition, your doctor will likely recommend:

Antibiotics

In most cases, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to eliminate the infection and prevent it from spreading. For a simple bladder infection, you will typically take a three day course of antibiotics. With a mild or normal UTI, antibiotics can be taken at-home. 

However, if you have a severe infection or complications, you may receive antibiotics intravenously in the hospital. Your course of antibiotics may take up to two weeks for a complicated infection.

Surgery

In rare cases when a urinary tract infection coincides with a blockage, such as a kidney stone, surgery may be necessary. Only after the blockage is removed or repaired can the infection be successfully treated with antibiotics.

Urinary tract infections can range from mild and inconvenient to severe and dangerous. Try decreasing your risk of getting a UTI with these prevention habits:

  • Always urinate right after sexual activity.
  • Hydrate consistently and urinate frequently.
  • Favor showering over bathing.
  • Always wipe front to back when using the restroom.

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Medically Reviewed on 1/11/2021
References
American Kidney Fund: "Blood in urine."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Urinary Tract Infection."

Planned Parenthood: "Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)."

University of Michigan: "Urinary Tract Infection."

Urology Care Foundation: "Kidney (Renal) Infection - Pyelonephritis."

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