A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial inflammation in the urinary tract which includes your kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract — the bladder and the urethra. Women are at greater risk of developing a UTI than are men. Infection limited to your bladder can be painful and annoying. However, serious consequences can occur if a UTI spreads to your kidneys. If left untreated, a UTI can cause permanent damage to the bladder and kidneys.

What causes urinary tract infections?

Urinary tract infections typically occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract through the urethra and begin to multiply in the bladder. Although the urinary system is designed to keep out such microscopic invaders, these defenses sometimes fail. When that happens, bacteria may take hold and grow into a full-blown infection in the urinary tract.

Risk factors specific to women for UTIs include:

  • Female anatomy. A woman has a shorter urethra than a man does, which shortens the distance that bacteria must travel to reach the bladder.
  • Sexual activity. Sexually active women tend to have more UTIs than do women who aren’t sexually active. Having a new sexual partner also increases your risk.
  • Certain types of birth control. Women who use diaphragms for birth control may be at higher risk, as well as women who use spermicides.
  • Menopause. After menopause, a decline in circulating estrogen causes changes in the urinary tract that make you more vulnerable to infection.
  • A history of diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, stroke, kidney stones or any problem that causes the bladder not to empty completely
  • Pregnancy increases your risk of developing a UTI. (See Urinary Tract Infections During Pregnancy.)
  • A history of UTIs, especially if the infections were less then six months apart
  • Waiting too long to urinate

What are the signs and symptoms?

Urinary tract infections don’t always cause signs and symptoms, but when they do they may include:

  • Pain or burning (discomfort) when urinating
  • The need to urinate more often than usual
  • Passing frequent, small amounts of urine
  • A feeling of urgency when you urinate
  • Blood or mucus in the urine
  • Cramping or pain in the lower abdomen
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Chills, fever, sweats, leaking of urine (incontinence)
  • Waking up from sleep to urinate
  • Change in the amount of urine, either more or less
  • Urine that looks cloudy, smells foul or unusually strong
  • Pain, pressure, or tenderness especially in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone
  • If bacteria spreads to the kidneys you may experience back pain, chills, fever, nausea, and vomiting.

How do I know if I have a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

The number of bacteria and white blood cells in a urine sample is the basis for diagnosing a UTI. Proper diagnosis is vital since these symptoms can also be caused by other problems such as infections of the vagina or vulva. Only your physician can make the distinction and make a correct diagnosis.

What treatment options are available?

Urinary tract infections are most commonly treated by antibiotics. You may take a single dose antibiotic, or you may take an antibiotic for 3-10 days. Take all your medications as prescribed, even after the symptoms are gone. If you stop taking your medication before the scheduled end of treatment, the infection may come back.

Pyridium may be prescribed to relieve painful urination while the antibiotics are treating the infection (this medication may turn your urine a dark orange color). Symptoms usually will subside within 2-3 days, but if symptoms continue for more than 3 days you will need to contact your health provider again.

How can I prevent urinary tract infections?

You may do everything right and still experience a urinary tract infection, but you can reduce the likelihood by doing the following:

  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water each day. Drinking water helps dilute your urine and ensures that you’ll urinate more frequently — allowing bacteria to be flushed from your urinary tract before an infection can begin.
  • Eliminate refined foods, fruit juices, caffeine, alcohol, and sugar.
  • Drink cranberry juice. Although studies are not conclusive that cranberry juice prevents UTIs, it is likely not harmful.
  • Take vitamin C (250 to 500 mg), beta-carotene (25,000 to 50,000 IU per day) and zinc (30-50 mg per day) to help fight infection.
  • Develop a habit of urinating as soon as the need is felt, and empty your bladder completely when you urinate.
  • Urinate before and after intercourse. Also, drink a full glass of water to help flush bacteria.
  • Avoid intercourse while you are being treated for a UTI.
  • After urinating, blot dry (do not rub), and keep your genital area clean. Make sure you wipe from the front toward the back.
  • Avoid using strong soaps, douches, antiseptic creams, feminine hygiene sprays, and powders.
  • Change underwear and pantyhose every day.
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting pants.
  • Wear all-cotton or cotton-crotch underwear and pantyhose.
  • Don’t soak in the bathtub longer than 30 minutes or more than twice a day.

Compiled using information from the following sources:

  • American Academy of Family Physicians, https://familydoctor.org
  • Infectious Diseases of the Female Genital Tract Fourth Ed. Sweet, Richard L, et al, Ch. 15.
  • Mayo Clinic/Diseases