A to Z Health Guide

Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections are responsible for nearly 10 million healthcare visits each year. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the urinary tract?

The urinary system (also called the “urinary tract”) is the part of your body that makes urine.  It is made up of two kidneys, the ureters, the bladder, and the urethra. 

How is urine made?

Your kidneys make urine by removing wastes and extra water from your blood.  The urine travels from your kidneys through two thin tubes called ureters and fills the bladder. When the bladder is full, a person urinates through the urethra to get rid of the waste. 

What is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection (also called a “UTI”) is what happens when bacteria (germs) get into the urinary system and multiply. The result is redness, swelling, and pain. If the infection is not treated promptly, the bacteria can travel up to the kidneys and cause a more serious type of infection, called pyelonephritis.

Are certain people more likely to get UTIs?

Anyone can get a one, but some people are more likely than others.

  • Women get UTIs much more often than men.This may be because women have a shorter urethra, which may make it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder.

  • People with diabetes may have changes in their body's defense system, making it easier to get urinary infections.

  • People with blockages in their urinary tract, such as a kidney stone, are more likely to get UTIs. An enlarged prostate gland in a man can also block the flow of urine and cause a UTI.

People who have a catheter (tube) placed in their bladder for a long time are more prone to UTIs.This is because bacteria on the catheter can infect the bladder.

What are the symptoms of a UTI?

Some people do not feel any symptoms.  However, most people will have one or more of the following:

  • an urgent need to urinate, often with only a few drops of urine to pass

  • a burning feeling during urination

  • an aching feeling, pressure, or pain in the lower abdomen (stomach)

  • cloudy or blood-tinged urine

  • strong odor to the urine

If the infection spreads to the kidneys and becomes more serious, you may also have:

  • pain in the lower back

  • fever and chills

  • nausea and vomiting

See your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.

How do I know if I have a UTI?

Your doctor will test a sample of your urine for bacteria and blood cells. This is called a “urinalysis.”  A culture of the urine will tell your healthcare provider which bacteria are present.

How are UTIs treated?

UTIs are treated with “antibiotics.”  Antibiotics are medicines that destroy bacteria and stop it from growing.  You may be told to take the antibiotics for one or two weeks.  This helps make sure the infection has been cured.  You may also be asked to drink plenty of water.  

What if the infection does not clear up with treatment?

Most infections clear up with treatment.  However, if an infection does not clear up, or if you have repeated infections, you may be given some special tests such as:

  • a type of x-ray called an intravenous pyleogram (IVP), which involves injecting a dye into a vein and taking pictures of your kidney and bladder

  • an ultrasound exam, which gives a picture of your kidneys and bladder using sound waves

  • a cytoscopic exam, which uses a hollow tube with special lenses to look inside the bladder.

What can be done for women who get repeated UTIs?

Women who get UTIs often (three or more times a year) should speak to a healthcare provider.  One or more of the following may be recommended:

  • Taking low doses of an antibiotic daily for six months or longer

  • Taking a single dose of antibiotic after having sex

  • Taking an antibiotic for one or two days when symptoms occur

Are pregnant women more likely to get UTIs?

UTIs may be more serious during pregnancy because the bacteria are more likely to travel to the kidneys. A pregnant woman with a UTI should consult her healthcare provider to avoid potential problems like high blood pressure or premature delivery of her baby.

Do children get UTIs?

Yes, though less often than adults. Girls, especially between ages 4 and 8, are more likely to have UTIs than boys. Infants who are born with an abnormality of their urinary tract have an increased chance of getting a UTI. Because it’s easier to overlook symptoms of a UTI in children, parents should look for the following signs:

  • low fever

  • irritability

  • frequent urination

  • pain or burning when urinating (younger children may cry when urinating)

  • pain around the belly button

  • strong odor to the urine and cloudy or blood-tinged urine

  • new day or night wetting in a child who has been dry

If the infection spreads to the kidneys, the child may also have high fever, back pain, and vomiting.

Can anything be done to help prevent UTIs?

Yes. The following steps may help:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.

  • Do not postpone going to the bathroom.  Urinate when you feel the urge.

  • Wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from the bowels (intestines) from getting into the urinary tract.

  • Wash the genital area every day and before having sex.

  • Empty your bladder before and after having sex. 

Do UTIs lead to kidney damage?

Not usually.  In most cases, UTIs can be treated successfully without causing kidney damage. UTIs caused by problems like an enlarged prostate gland (in men) or a kidney stone can lead to kidney damage if the problem is not corrected, and the infection continues. UTIs in young children that are associated with high fevers may sometimes cause kidney damage if not treated promptly.

Date Reviewed: 
August 9, 2016

The information shared on our websites is information developed solely from internal experts on the subject matter, including medical advisory boards, who have developed guidelines for our patient content. This material does not constitute medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. No one associated with the National Kidney Foundation will answer medical questions via e-mail. Please consult a physician for specific treatment recommendations.