What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

A urinary tract infection, commonly referred to as an UTI, is a bacterial infection in the urinary tract. Although urinary tract infection can occur in the kidneys, ureters, bladder or urethra, most occur in the bladder or urethra (lower tract).

Approximately 20 percent of women experience a UTI at some point in their lives.

If left untreated, UTIs can cause other serious conditions or complications including sepsis, permanent kidney damage, premature and low birth weight babies or recurrent infections.

Common related conditions
Urinary Incontinence in Women Kidney Stones Hematuria (Blood in Urine)

Causes of urinary tract infections

A urinary tract infection can develop when bacteria enters the urethra and starts to multiply in the bladder.

The most common ways bacteria can enter the urinary tract include:

  • Sex
  • Constipation
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Not urinating when you have to go (holding it)
  • Dehydration
  • Birth control
  • Feminine products
  • Kidney stones

Risk factors of urinary tract infections

Women are more likely to develop UTIs than men. Risk factors for women include:

  • Length of the urethra in a woman — women have shorter urethras than men, so bacteria do not have to go as far to get to the bladder
  • Being sexually active
  • Using diaphragms or spermicidal agents for birth control
  • Going through menopause – after menopause, women are more vulnerable to infection 

Risk factors for men and women include:

  • Blockages in the urinary tract caused by kidney stones or an enlarged prostate
  • Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, that suppress the immune system
  • Use of catheters 
  • Abnormalities in the urinary track

Symptoms of urinary tract infections

Symptoms of UTIs depend on if it is located in the upper tract (kidneys or ureters) or lower tract (bladder or urethra).

Lower tract UTI symptoms include:

  • Rectal pain in men
  • Pelvic pain in women
  • Burning during urination
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Bloody or cloudy urine

Upper tract UTI symptoms include:

  • Pain in the upper back or sides of the body
  • Fever or chills
  • Nausea or vomiting 

Diagnosis of a urinary tract infection

A urinary tract infection can typically be diagnosed in a urine test during a visit with your doctor. Other tests that may be performed include:

  • Urine culture to determine the bacteria causing the infection and the most appropriate treatment option.
  • Imaging tests including CT scan or MRI to take pictures of the urinary tract to determine the cause of your symptoms.
  • Cystoscopy to see inside the bladder.

Treatment for urinary tract infections

Treatment for a urinary tract infection will depend on the cause of the infection. If the infection is caused by bacteria, you will be given antibiotics. Oral antibiotics are effective for lower urinary tract infections, while IV antibiotics are required for upper urinary tract infections.

If you have recurrent urinary tract infections, you may be put on long-term, low-dose antibiotics or a single antibiotic dose after sexual intercourse if infections are related to sexual activity.

Research is being done on alternative treatments to antibiotics to alleviate the concern around antibiotic resistant bacteria.

If the UTI is caused by a virus, you may be given an antiviral medication and if the UTI is caused by a fungus, you may be given an antifungal medication.

Recovery from urinary tract infections

Most simple UTIs can be cleared up with antibiotics for three days in women and seven to fourteen days in men.

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