Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): Causes, Symptoms, & Treatments

UTIs are some of the most common infections, affecting a significant number of people each year across ages and genders. However, many people may not know what causes a UTI or what they can do to prevent these infections.

In this guide, we have compiled everything you need to know about UTIs, including the different types, symptoms, treatment, and what you can do to prevent them.

What is a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) results when a pathogen (e.g., bacteria, fungus, virus) infects some aspect of the urinary tract, which consists of the urethra, ureters, bladder, and kidneys.

In most cases, UTIs result from bacteria entering the urethra and traveling through the urinary tract to the bladder, and the bacteria that most often causes a UTI is E. coli. 

How Common Are UTIs?

UTIs are very common infections, causing more than 8 million doctors’ visits each year just in the United States. They are most common in women, affecting between 50-60% of women at least once in their life. However, men and children can also develop UTIs.

Who Is at Risk for UTIs?

There are various risk factors for UTIs, including gender, life stage, and health conditions.

Women

Women are at a greater risk of UTIs than men, and this is because of the anatomy of the female body. First, the urethra is closer to the anus in women, which makes it easier for bacteria that linger around the anus, such as E. coli (the most common bacteria to cause UTIs), to make their way to the urethra.

Additionally, the length of the urethra is shorter in women, which leaves a shorter distance for bacteria to travel to get to the bladder.

Besides gender being a risk factor, the life stage the woman is in also affects their UTI risk. Postmenopausal women who suffer from dryness in their vagina are at an increased risk of UTIs because of the increase in irritation. Also, menopause causes a particular type of bacteria that maintains vaginal pH to decrease in amount. This then lowers vaginal pH to a level that harmful bacteria can withstand, increasing UTI risk.

People With Diabetes

Those with diabetes have a higher amount of sugar in their blood and urine. These higher sugar levels can then promote bacteria growth.

Additionally, diabetes can also impact blood flow, sensory function, and nerves, which can affect your ability to know when you need to go to the bathroom. The longer urine stays in the bladder, the greater the risk of UTIs. 

Those with diabetes are also at a greater risk of severe UTIs due to resistant pathogens, which makes treatment more difficult.  

Being Sexually Active

Sexual intercourse increases the risk of a UTI because it can move bacteria from the anus to the vagina, where it can more easily enter the urethra and cause a UTI.

In addition, those who use certain types of birth control, such as spermicidal condoms, are at a greater risk of UTIs. This is because spermicide makes it easier for harmful bacteria to survive in the vagina, where it is then easier for them to infect the urethra.

Pregnancy

Pregnancy can result in urinary tract changes that impact how well someone is able to fully empty their bladder. When the bladder is not fully emptied, bacteria can grow and infect the bladder more easily.

Pregnancy hormones can also change the chemical properties of your urine, making it less effective in removing harmful bacteria from the urinary tract.

Enlarged Prostate

Just like pregnancy makes fully emptying the bladder difficult for women, an enlarged prostate has the same effect on men.

UTI Symptoms

When the urinary tract becomes infected, its lining can become red, irritated, and inflamed, which can produce the following symptoms:

  • painful urination
  • frequently and urgently needing to urinate
  • incontinence
  • pain in the side, abdomen, or pelvic area
  • pressure in the lower pelvis
  • cloudy urine
  • strong or foul-smelling urine

The above are the most common symptoms of a UTI, but the following symptoms may accompany them:

  • penis pain
  • pain during sex
  • fatigue
  • pain in the lower back or side of the body
  • vomiting
  • fever
  • confusion

These additional symptoms may signify a more serious kidney infection, which can occur if the bacteria causing the UTI continue traveling up the urinary tract. If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is recommended to see a doctor before any complications occur.

UTI Types

The different types of UTIs depend on what part of the urinary tract is infected, and they include:

  • urethritis (infection of the urethra)
  • cystitis (infection of the bladder)
  • pyelonephritis (infection of the kidneys)

UTI Causes

The cause of a UTI is typically bacterial. In most cases, the bacteria that reside in the large intestine, and can be found around the anus, are the most common source of infection.

One cause of a UTI is sexual intercourse, which can move bacteria into the urinary tract.

Another common cause of UTIs is catheter use in those at a hospital or long-term care facilities. Catheters are little tubes that help drain urine when inserted into the bladder. However, they also introduce the risk of bacteria, which can develop into a UTI.

In some cases, bacteria may travel through the lymph system or blood before finding and infecting the kidneys or bladder.

UTI Complications

If a UTI is treated quickly and correctly, it very rarely leads to complications. However, if a UTI is left untreated, some severe complications can occur, such as:

  • permanent kidney damage
  • recurrent infections
  • risk of pregnant women delivering premature or low birth weight infants
  • sepsis
  • urethral narrowing

Sepsis, in particular, is a life-threatening complication of UTIs affecting the kidneys.

How to Prevent a UTI?

There are many actions you can take to help prevent UTIs.

Practice Good Hygiene

For women, in particular, it is important to wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. This helps to limit the spread of bacteria from the anus to the urethra.

Stay Hydrated

One risk factor of UTIs is dehydration because this results in less urine passing through your body, and urine helps to clear out bacteria from the urinary tract. By staying hydrated, your urinary tract will regularly be cleared of bacteria, which can prevent them from causing an infection.

When increasing your hydration levels, it is also essential to go to the bathroom whenever the need arises. Holding in your pee creates a breeding ground for bacteria, so it is always best to urinate when you feel the urge and to empty your bladder completely when you do go to the bathroom.

Switch Birth Control

Spermicidal condoms can increase the risk of UTIs. This is because the spermicide coating the condoms helps E. coli more easily adhere to the vaginal lining, making it easier for the E. coli to enter the urethra.

In addition, spermicide also inhibits the good bacteria in the vagina that play an important role in destroying any harmful bacteria, such as E. coli.

If you use spermicidal condoms, try switching to a different type of condom or discussing alternative methods of birth control with your healthcare provider.

Wear Loose-Fitting Clothes

When you wear tight-fitting clothes, moisture is more likely, which creates a favorable environment for harmful bacteria.

By opting for looser-fitting clothing, you can remain dry in your genitals, which helps to prevent bacterial growth.

Diagnosis

There are many levels to a UTI diagnosis. Some doctors may be able to consider just your symptoms to diagnose a UTI, not needing to perform any additional tests.

If your doctor decides to perform a test for a UTI, they may conduct a urine test or culture.

Urinalysis is a urine test where the lab checks your urine for bacteria, white blood cells, and red blood cells.

A doctor can use a urine culture to determine the type of bacteria causing the infection. In cases where the infection is not cleared by typical first-line antibiotic treatment, this can be helpful to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection and what antibiotic is then needed.

For those whose UTI does not respond to treatment, or those who experience recurring UTIs, an ultrasound, CT scan, or cystoscopy may be used to examine the urinary tract for other causes of disease or injury that may be contributing to the frequent UTIs.

UTI Treatment

Since most UTIs result from bacterial infections, an antibiotic is often the only way to treat a UTI.

The antibiotic will stop bacteria from growing and multiplying by damaging the bacteria themselves or hindering the ability of bacteria to function.

Some of the most common antibiotics used for UTIs include:

The best antibiotic for your UTI will depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection, where the infection is, the infection severity, if your UTIs are recurrent, and a history of antibiotic resistance.

In order to see the best results from treatment, it is crucial to take your antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor. Ending the course of antibiotics early, or staying on it for longer than prescribed, can increase the risk of antibiotic resistance, which leads to more severe infections.

It is also important to follow the prescription instructions for the antibiotics. Some are only taken once, whereas others may be taken multiple times a day. Following the instructions, including if it can be taken with food/water, will go a long way in ensuring that the medication is effective.

There are also medications available as a preventative measure for those who experience frequent UTIs. If this is something you suffer from, discuss with your doctor the potential preventive measures you can take.

How To Relieve UTI Pain And Discomfort?

As an antibiotic works to fight the infections, it is still possible to experience pain and discomfort that can make everything more challenging, including sleeping at night.

If you are experiencing pain and discomfort due to a UTI, there are some actions you can take to find relief, such as:

  • applying warm compresses to your pelvis
  • drinking more water
  • taking over-the-counter pain relievers (including some specific for UTIs)
  • wearing loose clothing

Drinking cranberry juice may also help to provide relief from a UTI and assist your antibiotic as it fights the infection. Research surrounding cranberry juice for UTIs is minimal, but there are some promising studies that support the use of cranberry juice (and especially cranberry extract) and the chemicals it contains to help make it difficult for bacteria to stick to the urinary tract lining.  

When To See a Doctor

It is always recommended to see a doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of a UTI because leaving a UTI untreated increases the risk of kidney infection or more severe complications.

Additionally, if you exhibit signs of a kidney infection, it is recommended to seek urgent care services.

While there is OTC medication aimed toward UTIs, the only way to get an oral antibiotic is with a prescription.

Get Help from An Online Doctor

While a prescription is needed to obtain an antibiotic for UTIs, it is not necessary to physically go to a doctor’s office to get it. With DrHouse, you can meet with an online doctor from the comfort of your home, and all doctors are able to write an online prescription if there is a need for one.

Key Takeaways

UTIs are painful health conditions affecting a significant portion of the population at some point in their life. Women, in particular, are at an increased risk of UTIs, although they can still affect men and even children. Additional risk factors for UTIs include certain health conditions, age, and sexual activity.

UTIs are most often caused by bacteria that enter and infect the urethra before traveling to the bladder and, potentially, the kidneys. However, many preventive actions can be taken to avoid UTIs, especially in those who experience them frequently.

Untreated UTIs can lead to some serious complications, so it is always important to see a doctor as soon as you suspect a UTI to receive an antibiotic and treat the infection. However, when your UTI makes leaving the house seem unbearable, DrHouse allows you to meet with a doctor and receive an antibiotic prescription without having to leave your house.

Sources

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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