A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of your urinary system, including your kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract: the bladder and the urethra. Women are at a greater risk of developing a UTI than men.
Infection that is limited to your bladder can be painful and frustrating. However, serious consequences can occur if a UTI spreads to your kidneys. Doctors typically treat UTIs with antibiotics, but you can take steps to reduce your chances of developing a UTI in the first place.
Symptoms of a UTI
Urinary tract infections don't always cause signs and symptoms, but when they do, they may include:
- A strong, persistent urge to urinate.
- A burning sensation when urinating.
- Passing frequent, small amounts of urine.
- Urine that appears cloudy.
- Urine that appears red, bright pink, or cola colored - a sign of blood in the urine.
- Strong-smelling urine.
- Pelvic pain, in women - especially in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone.
UTIs may be overlooked or mistaken for other conditions in older adults.
Causes of UTI
Urinary tract infections typically occur when bacteria enters the urinary tract through the urethra and begin to multiply in the bladder. The most common UTIs occur mainly in women and affect the bladder and urethra.
Infection of the bladder (cystitis): This type of UTI is usually caused by the gastrointestinal bacteria E. coli, but may also be caused by other bacteria or sexual activity.
Infection of the urethra (urethritis): This type of UTI can occur when GI bacteria spreads from the anus to the urethra. Also, sexually transmitted infections can cause urethritis.
UTIs are common in women and many women experience more than 1 infection during their lifetimes. Risk factors specific to women for UTIs include:
- Female anatomy: Women have a shorter urethra than men, which shortens the distance that bacteria must travel to reach the bladder.
- Sexual activity.
- Certain types of birth control: Including diaphragms and spermicidal agents.
- Menopause: After menopause, a decline in circulating estrogen causes changes in the urinary tract that make you more vulnerable to infection.
- Urinary tract abnormalities.
- Blockages in the urinary tract: Such as kidney stones or an enlarged prostate.
- A suppressed immune system: Diabetes and other diseases that impair the immune system.
- Catheter use.
- A recent urinary procedure.
When treated promptly and properly, lower urinary tract infections rarely lead to complications, but left untreated, a UTI can have serious consequences.
Complications of a UTI may include:
- Recurrent infections, especially in women who experience 2 or more UTIs in a 6 month period or 4 or more within a year.
- Permanent kidney damage from an acute or chronic kidney infection due to an untreated UTI.
- Increased risk in pregnant women of delivering low birth weight or premature infants.
- Urethral narrowing in men from recurrent urethritis, previously seen with gonococcal urethritis.
- Sepsis, a potentially life threatening complication of an infection, especially if the infection works its way up your urinary tract to your kidneys.
Reducing Your Risk
You can also take steps to prevent and reduce your risk of UTIs:
- Drink plenty of liquids: especially water, to increase urination and the elimination of bacteria. Cranberry juice may also be helpful.
- Wipe from front to back: Doing so after urinating and after a bowel movement helps prevent bacteria in the anal region from spreading to the vagina and urethra.
- Empty your bladder soon after intercourse.
- Avoid potentially irritating feminine products: Using deodorant sprays or other feminine products in the genital area can irritate the urethra.
- Change your birth control method.
- Avoid drinks that may irritate your bladder: Avoid coffee, alcohol, and soft drinks containing citrus juices or caffeine until your infection has cleared.
- Use a heating pad.
Antibiotics usually are the first line treatment for UTIs. Which drugs are prescribed and for how long depend on your health condition and the type of bacteria found in your urine.
Your doctor may also prescribe a pain medication that numbs your bladder and urethra to relieve burning while urinating, but pain is usually relieved soon after starting an antibiotic.
If you have frequent UTIs, your doctor may make certain treatment recommendations, such as:
- Low dose antibiotics.
- Single dose antibiotics after sexual activity.
- Vaginal estrogen therapy if you're postmenopausal.
For a severe UTI, you may need treatment with IV antibiotics in a hospital.
Please consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional before starting or stopping any medication, taking any supplement, or beginning a health care regimen.