Urinary Tract Infections

Every year, urinary tract infections account for nearly 10 million doctor visits. One in five women will have at least one urinary tract infection in her lifetime.

What is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) occurs when bacteria (germs) get into the urinary tract and multiply. The urinary tract is made up of the bladder, urethra and the two ureters and kidneys. These germs usually enter the urinary tract through the urethra, the tube that carries urine out of the body, and travel up to the bladder. The result is redness, swelling and pain in the urinary tract. If a UTI is not treated promptly, the bacteria can move up to the kidneys and cause a more serious type of infection, called pyelonephritis.

Are certain people more likely to get UTIs?

Yes. While anyone can get them, some people are more likely than others.

  • Women get UTIs much more often than men do, possibly because they have a shorter urethra, which may make it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder.
  • People with diabetes experience changes in their body's defense system that may make it easier for them to get UTIs.
  • People with a kidney stone or an enlarged prostate gland may have their urine flow blocked, which can cause a UTI. Men who get UTIs often have an enlarged prostate glands.

What are the symptoms of a UTI?

Some people have no symptoms, but most 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 when they urinate
  • cloudy or blood-tinged urine
  • strong odor to the urine.

If the infection spreads to the kidneys and becomes more severe, it may result in pain in the lower back as well as fever, chills, nausea and vomiting. See your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

How are UTIs treated?

Your doctor will test a sample of your urine for bacteria and blood cells. Different medications called antibiotics may also be tested to see which one works best against the bacteria. UTIs treated with antibiotics often clear up after one or two days of treatment. However, your doctor may ask you to take the antibiotic for one or two weeks to make sure the infection has been cured. In addition your doctor may suggest you take a pain reliever, use a heating pad and drink plenty of fluids.

What if the infection does not clear up with treatment?

If this happens, the doctor may order some special tests:

  • 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 three or more times a year should speak to their doctor. The doctor may order special tests (see previous question) and recommend one of the following dosages of an antibiotic:

  • Take low doses for six months or more
  • Take a single dose after having sex
  • Take for one or two days when symptoms of a UTI occur.

Are pregnant women more likely to get UTIs?

No, but UTIs may be more serious during pregnancy because they are more likely to travel to the kidneys. A pregnant woman with a UTI should consult her doctor to avoid potential problems like high blood pressure and premature delivery of her baby.

Can women do anything to help prevent UTIs?

Yes. The following steps may help to prevent UTIs:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Some evidence suggests that drinking cranberry juice cocktail may reduce the chances of developing UTIs, because it contains compounds that may stop certain bacteria from attaching to the urinary tract wall.
  • Do not delay going to the bathroom when you need to urinate.
  • Wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria from the intestines from entering the urinary tract.
  • Wash the genital area every day, plus before and after having sex.
  • Empty your bladder before and after having sex. 

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. Parents should look for the following signs of a possible UTI in their children:

  • low fever
  • irritability
  • frequent urination, pain or burning when urinating, 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 and back pain and experience vomiting.

Do UTIs lead to kidney damage?

In most cases, UTIs can be treated successfully without causing kidney damage. UTIs caused by a kidney stone or (in men) an enlarged prostate gland can damage the kidneys if the problem is not corrected and the infection continues. UTIs in young children can may sometimes cause kidney damage if not treated promptly.