Urinary Tract Infections – UTIs

Photo of woman experiencing discomfort due to a UTI

Condition or Illness – What is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection, or UTI, is an infection that can happen anywhere along the urinary tract. Urinary tract infections have different names, depending on what part of the urinary tract is infected.

  • Bladder – an infection in the bladder is also called cystitis or a bladder infection.
  • Kidneys – an infection of one or both kidneys is called pyelonephritis or a kidney infection.
  • Ureters – the tubes that take urine from each kidney to the bladder are only rarely the site of infection.
  • Urethra – an infection of the tube that empties urine from the bladder to the outside is called urethritis.

Causes of Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections are caused by germs, usually bacteria that enter the urethra and then the bladder. This can lead to infection, most commonly in the bladder itself, which can spread to the kidneys.

Most of the time, your body can get rid of these bacteria. However, certain conditions increase the risk of having UTIs.

Women tend to get them more often because their urethra is shorter and closer to the anus than in men. Menopause also increases the risk of a UTI.

The following also increase your chances of developing a UTI:

  • Diabetes
  • Advanced age
  • Problems emptying your bladder completely (urinary retention)
  • A tube called a urinary catheter inserted into your urinary tract
  • Bowel incontinence
  • Enlarged prostate, narrowed urethra, or anything that blocks the flow of urine
  • Kidney stones
  • Staying still (immobile) for a long period of time (for example, while you are recovering from a hip fracture)
  • Pregnancy
  • Surgery or other procedure involving the urinary tract

Treatment of Urinary Tract Infections

Your doctor must first decide whether you have a mild or simple bladder or kidney infection or an infection that is more serious.

Antibiotics taken by mouth are usually recommended because there is a risk that the infection can spread to the kidneys.

Your doctor may also recommend drugs to relieve the burning pain and urgent need to urinate.

Everyone with a bladder or kidney infection should drink plenty of fluids.

Signs and Symptoms of Urinary Tract Infections

Signs and Symptoms of a bladder infection include:

  • Cloudy or bloody urine, which may have a foul or strong odor
  • Low fever (not everyone will have a fever)
  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Pressure or cramping in the lower abdomen (usually middle) or back
  • Strong need to urinate often, even right after the bladder has been emptied

If the infection spreads to your kidneys symptoms may include:

  • Chills and shaking or night sweats
  • Fatigue and a general ill feeling
  • Fever (above 101°F
  • Flank (side), back, or groin pain
  • Flushed, warm, or reddened skin
  • Mental changes or confusion (in the elderly, these symptoms often are the only signs of a UTI)

Exams and Tests

A urine sample is usually collected to perform the following tests:

  • Urinalysis – for this test you will be asked to urinate in a cup. Your medical professional will dip a reagent strip into the cup and monitor changes to indicator area wither visually or through an automated system. This is done to look for white blood cells, red blood cells, bacteria, and to test for certain chemicals, such as nitrites in the urine. Most of the time, your doctor or nurse can diagnose an infection using a urinalysis.
  • Urine culture – clean catch may be done to identify the bacteria in the urine to make sure the correct antibiotic is being used for treatment.
  • Certain blood tests can also be performed In more serious cases, the follow tests may be performed to rule out problems within the urinary system.
  • CT scan of the abdomen
  • Kidney scan
  • Kidney ultrasound

When to contact medical a professional

Contact your health care provider if you have symptoms of a UTI. Call right away if the following symptoms develop as these may be signs of a possible kidney infection:

  • Back or side pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Vomiting

Also call if you have already been diagnosed with a UTI and the symptoms come back shortly after treatment with antibiotics.

Preventing Urinary Tract Infections

Lifestyle changes may help prevent some UTIs.

After menopause, a woman may use estrogen cream in the vagina area to reduce the chance of further infections.

  • Choose sanitary pads instead of tampons, which some doctors believe make infections more likely. Change the pad each time you use the bathroom.
  • Take showers instead of baths. Avoid bath oils.
  • Keep your genital area clean. Clean your genital and anal areas before and after sexual activity.
  • Urinate before and after sexual activity.
  • Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom.
  • Avoid tight-fitting pants.
  • Wear cotton-cloth underwear and pantyhose, and change both at least once a day.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (2 to 4 quarts each day).
  • Drink cranberry juice or use cranberry tablets, but NOT if you have a personal or family history of kidney stones.
  • Do NOT drink fluids that irritate the bladder, such as alcohol and caffeine.

We would like to thank the National Library of Health's MedLine plus for some of the information contained in this article.

Further Information

For more information regarding this topic and others please visit the National Library of Health's MedLinePlus website.