Your Guide to Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

What is a UTI, and how can it be treated? Get answers to your questions here.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH

 

A stinging, burning sensation when you urinate. Feeling like you need to go again (right now!) even though you went just two minutes earlier. These are telltale signs of a urinary tract infection (UTI). And if you’ve had one before, you know just how painful they can be.

Urinary tract infections are the second most common type of infection in the body, causing about 8.1 million visits to the doctor each year, and can lead to dangerous complications if left untreated.

Thankfully, UTIs often respond well to antibiotics, and over-the-counter medicines can relieve symptoms in the meantime. Learn more about these common infections and what steps you can take to help prevent them in the first place.

 

What is a UTI?

A UTI is an infection in the urinary system, which includes the kidneys, bladder, ureters (the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder) and urethra (the tube that leads from the bladder to outside the body). UTIs develop when germs, typically bacteria, enter the urethra and spread to the bladder. Most of the time, the body is able to rid itself of these germs, but when it can’t, an infection can occur.

Most infections happen in the bladder, but they can also occur in the kidneys or urethra and, rarely, in the ureters. Depending on where the infection occurs in the urinary tract, it has different names. An infection of the bladder is called cystitis; an infection in one or both kidneys is called pyelonephritis; and an infection in the urethra is called urethritis

More than half of all women will experience at least one UTI during her lifetime. Men can also get UTIs, but women get them much more often because their urethra is shorter, making it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder. Some people have an obstruction, such as a kidney stone or an enlarged prostate, which blocks the flow of urine. This increases their risk for developing a UTI.

 

What are UTI symptoms?

Symptoms of a UTI vary by age and gender. In younger women, symptoms include:

  • Pain, stinging or burning when urinating
  • Frequent urge to urinate, but without much urine coming out when you try to go
  • Cramps, pain or soreness in the lower abdomen or back
  • Urine that has a strong odor
  • Blood or pus in urine
  • Pain during sex

If the infection has spread to your kidneys, symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Chills and shaking or night sweats
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Pain in the flank (side), back or groin

In older women and men, UTI symptoms more often include:

  • Mental confusion (in seniors, this may be the only or predominant sign)
  • Feeling tired, shaky and weak
  • Muscle aches
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dark or cloudy urine or urine that has a foul odor

 

If I think I have a UTI, what should I do?

If you have UTI symptoms, see your doctor at once. Getting prompt treatment can stop the infection from spreading to your kidneys, which can lead to permanent kidney damage. It’s especially critical for pregnant women to see their healthcare provider at the first sign of a UTI because these infections can increase a pregnant woman’s risk of preterm birth and of delivering a low birth weight baby. (UTIs are more common in pregnant women because the weight of the growing womb can impede drainage from the ureters.)

 

How is a UTI diagnosed?

At your appointment, your doctor will ask you for a urine sample. The sample will be sent for lab analysis to look for bacteria or white blood cells, which are produced by the body to fight off infections. Bacteria can be found in the urine of healthy people, though, so your doctor will diagnose you with a UTI only if you have symptoms of an infection and your urine sample comes back positive.

If you have recurrent UTIs, your doctor may do further testing to determine if your urinary tract is healthy. Your doctor may order an X-ray, ultrasound or CT scan to get a glimpse of your urinary tract, or your doctor may want to get a close-up view of your urethra and bladder through a cystoscopy. In this procedure, a small tube (cystoscope) is inserted into your urethra.

 

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