What is a Urinary Tract Infection?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection that involves any part of your urinary system, which includes your kidneys, bladder, ureters and urethra.
The urinary system is made up of the following structures:
- Kidneys (upper) – The kidneys are two small organs that sit on either side of the spine at waist level. The kidneys are in charge of removing waste and excess water from the bloodstream and depositing these materials in the form of urine. These functions contribute to the regulation of blood pressure and are sensitive to changes in blood sugar.
- Ureters (upper) – The ureters are two narrow tubes – each about 10 inches long – that drain your urine from each kidney to the bladder.
- Bladder (lower) – The bladder is a small organ that collects and stores urine. When the bladder is full to a certain level with urine the body experiences the impulse to empty the bladder and we are able to contract the muscle lining of the organ to expel the urine.
- Urethra (lower) – The urethra is the small tube that connects the bladder with the outside of the body. The bladder muscle lining must contract at the same time as a muscle called the urinary sphincter, which allows urine to excrete through the urethra.
The majority of urinary tract infections involve the lower urinary tract – the bladder and urethra – but any part of this excretory system can become infected. Typically, the farther up a UTI occurs in the system, the more serious it is.
Symptoms of urinary tract infections vary greatly from person to person depending on their medical history and the location and severity of the infection. Knowing what organs make up the urinary tract and are susceptible to infection can help you understand the different types of conditions that can occur. Symptoms of a urinary tract infection can develop within a day, sometimes even as quickly as a few hours.
Some of the symptoms you might experience during a UTI include:
- Burning feeling when urinating
- Frequent and intense urges to urinate, though little urine actually comes out when you do
- Pain or pressure in your lower abdomen or back
- Feeling tired or shaky
- Cloudy, bloody, dark, or strange-smelling urine
- Fever, chills, nausea or vomiting – these symptoms may indicate that the infection has spread into the kidneys and should prompt immediate evaluation by a doctor
Women in particular tend to experience pain in the center of the pelvis and pubic bone. The location of the infection can also cause other varying symptoms.
While UTIs are generally not contagious, they can lead to more serious health conditions. Other complications that can occur due to infections include:
- Permanent kidney damage that results in chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure, or kidney failure
- Blood poisoning, also known as septicemia, caused by bacteria spreading when the kidneys process blood for urine and return it to circulation
- Pregnancy complications such as increased risk of low birth weight
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms you should seek treatment from a physician as soon as possible in order to prevent further complications.
What is a stealth UTI?
It is not unusual to have an infection develop without symptoms of urinary tract infection. This condition is called asymptomatic bacteriuria, where bacteria is present in the urine but the infection has not lead to other detectable signs and symptoms. Usually this condition does not require treatment unless there are increased risk factors that indicate a full-blown infection could occur or cause complications.
While healthy adults can easily flush out enough bacteria to heal infections, those with weaker immune systems may not. Kidney transplant patients, some children, and pregnant women are recommended to take antibiotics for asymptomatic bacteriuria. Developing a UTI during pregnancy can be dangerous for both the mother and infant, making it important to check and remove any bacteria present in the urinary tract.
Urinary Tract Infection Causes
Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enters the urinary tract through the urethra and begins to multiply. The urinary system is designed to block these invaders out, but sometimes these protections fail. When the system is unable to block unwanted bacteria out, the bacteria can take hold and blossom into a full-blown infection.
UTIs most commonly occur in women and can be caused by:
- Infection of the bladder (cystitis) This type of UTI is typically caused by Eschericha coli (E. coli), a bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Sexual intercourse can be a cause of cystitis, but the infection can also develop without sexual activity. All women are susceptible to cystitis because of their anatomy.
- Infection of the urethra (urethritis) This type of infection can occur when gastrointestinal bacteria spreads from the anus to the urethra. It can also occur when a woman contracts a sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes and mycoplasma.
Urinary Tract Infections in Men
While women are more susceptible to UTIs because of their anatomical structure, men can still contract the same kind of infection.
UTIs in men present the same kind of symptoms that they would in women, but the causes differ quite a bit. It’s unlikely that a man would catch a UTI from having sex with a woman, as the infection is typically born from bacteria already present in the man’s urinary tract.
UTIs in men are more common with older age. One reason for this is that older men are more likely to have benign prostatic hyperplasia, a non-cancerous enlargement of their prostate gland. Enlargement of the prostate gland makes it difficult for urine to flow freely through the urethra, because the prostate wraps around the area where the urethra connects to the bladder. If the bladder isn’t able to empty completely bacteria that would normally get flushed out may gain traction and create an infection.
Other causes of UTIs in men and women include:
- Long periods of immobility
- Recent urinary tract surgery
- Fecal incontinence
- Anal intercourse
Urinary Tract Infections in Children
UTIs in children present the same symptoms as adults, but it may be more difficult to tell exactly what is causing the symptoms (especially if the child cannot talk yet).
For the most part, girls are more likely to develop bladder infections than boys. This is not the case, however, for the first year of life. Boys younger than age 1 who have not been circumcised have a higher risk for contracting a UTI.
Other factors that may lead to UTIs in children include:
- Abnormal bladder function or habits
- Vesicoureteral reflux (VUR) – a condition in which urine flows backward from the bladder toward the kidneys during urination
- Urinary blockages
- Poor toilet hygiene
- Family history of UTIs
Luckily, quick treatment will likely cure your child’s bladder infection without complications.
Recurring UTIs in Women
If you experience UTIs more than three times a year, you should consult your doctor about treatment options for chronic UTIs. Chronic UTIs may be caused by a variety of factors – poor sexual hygiene, hormonal imbalances, catheter usage, and more can all cause the recurrence of this type of infection.
If you have recurring UTIs, there are numerous special treatment options available to you, including:
- Taking low doses of certain antibiotics over a long period of time to prevent infection from occuring.
- Single dose antibiotics, which can be taken immediately after sex to prevent infection from spreading.
- An open prescription of antibiotics, so that you can get your medication as soon as your feel the infection coming on.
- Vaginal estrogen therapy for postmenopausal women.
Your doctor may also recommend at-home urine test kits. You don’t need a prescription for these kits, and they can be used to determine when you need to call your doctor. They can also show you if the antibiotics you’re using have effectively cured the infection.
UTI Risk Factors
Knowing UTI risk factors can help you prevent yourself from getting an infection. There are several preventative measures that can be adopted to reduce the risk of developing a UTI.
Some risk factors for UTIs apply only to women, as women are more likely to get this type of infection. These risk factors include:
- Female Anatomy – Unfortunately, it’s not something you are able to control. Women have shorter urethras than men do, which means that the bacteria that cause UTIs has a shorter distance to travel to reach the bladder. This anatomical difference makes women more susceptible to UTIs.
- Sexual Activity – Sexually active women tend to get UTIs more frequently than women who are not sexually active. Having a new sex partner can further increase your risk.
- Certain kinds of birth control – Women who use diaphragms and/or spermicidal agents have proven to be more likely to get a UTI than women who use other forms of birth control.
- Menopause – Menopause causes a decline in circulating estrogen, which in turn causes changes in the urinary tract that leave you more vulnerable to infection.
Other potential risk factors of UTIs include:
- Blockages in the urinary tract – Kidney stones or a swollen prostate can trap urine in the bladder and increase an individual’s risk of UTIs.
- Urinary tract abnormalities – Babies born with urinary tract abnormalities that prevent urine from leaving the body normally or cause the urine to back up in the urethra have increased risk of UTIs.
- Catheter use – A catheter is a tube that allows people who cannot urinate on their own to excrete their urine. People who use a catheter may be hospitalized, have neurological problems that make it difficult to control their urination, or may be paralyzed. Catheter usage increases a person’s risk of contracting a UTI significantly because of its direct involvement with the urethra.
- A suppressed immune system – Diseases that impair the immune system – diabetes, autoimmune diseases, etc. – limit the body’s ability to defend itself against germs. This leaves the individual with increased risk of UTIs.
- A recent urinary procedure – Any surgical or exam procedure of your urinary tract leaves you vulnerable to developing a UTI.
Here are some steps that you can take to reduce your risk of urinary tract infections:
- Urinating when you need to and always trying to empty your bladder fully
- Practicing safe sex to avoid contracting any bacteria from sexually transmitted diseases
- Taking showers instead of baths
- Urinating soon after sex to flush out any bacteria that may have entered your urethra
- Washing your genital area after sex
- Wearing cotton underwear and loose fitting clothing that don’t trap moisture because moist areas are a good environment for bacteria to grow
- Drinking plenty of fluids to flush out the bacteria and prevent dehydration; passing pale-colored urine that has a strong flow is a good sign bacteria is being flushed
Looking to get serious about your UTI prevention? You can also try drinking parsley juice and eating cabbage to prevent yourself from getting a UTI.
One National Institute of Health study found that parsley juice acts as a diuretic and increases urine production when compared to just drinking water. Stronger urine flow helps flush out bacteria and prevent a UTI from occuring. Parsley also contains multiple nutrients including vitamins A, B, and C that can support your body’s immune defenses when they fight against bacteria.
Eating cabbage also helps prevent UTIs by preventing constipation, which can cause irritation and skin lesions that increase your risk of infection. Cabbage is high in fiber and helps with fluid related issues that may affect the urinary tract.
Can I Have Sex with a UTI?
While it is possible to have sex with a UTI, it is not recommended. Waiting until you have fully recovered from your initial infection will ensure that you avoid complications and/or getting a recurring UTI. Having sex can increase the chances of bacteria entering the urinary tract. Penetration increases the chances that bacteria from your partners genitals, sex toys, or even bacteria that is on or near your vaginal opening has the opportunity to be pushed into the urethra area. The friction during sex can also further irritate your urethra. An inflamed urethra is often very painful and that pain will be intensified during sex.
Though not advised, sex during UTI treatment can be possible if the UTI is mild and proper precautions are taken. Make sure to treat your UTI symptoms and do your best to flush out bacteria before and after sexual intercourse. Putting a heating pad on your belly, back or side can help soothe the pain that comes with a UTI. Keeping your body hydrated is also essential, as dehydration and constipation make it difficult to empty your bladder, allowing trapped bacteria to grow. Drinking at least half of your bodyweight in ounces can help create a healthy flow of urination to properly flush out bacteria. Drinking fluids before sex so that your have a strong flow of urine after sex can significantly reduce your chances of re-activating your UTI.
Diagnosing a UTI
The process of diagnosing a UTI starts with the doctor asking questions regarding your symptoms and medical history. If there are symptoms and signs of infection, the doctor will often order urine samples. The samples can be used to test for the presence of bacteria, blood, and pus in the urine and ultimately determine whether an infection is present in the lower or upper urinary tract. A urine culture test can also be made on the sample to see what kind of bacteria is present.
In certain circumstances, other tests may be administered to help clarify the diagnosis of a UTI. Other tests include:
- Ultrasound or computerized tomography (CT) scan to check for blockages in the urinary tract; this is commonly used when treatment is ineffective for 72 hours
- Digital rectal exams (DRE) to check for swollen prostates in men
- Voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG) X-ray to find problems in the urethra and bladder
Antibiotics to Treat Your UTI
If symptoms are in the lower urinary tract and are mild, antibiotics may not be required. However, typically antibiotics are required to absolve a urinary tract infection, especially if the infection is severe or has traveled to the kidneys in the upper urinary tract. Doctors will usually prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics to cover all the bases of potential bacteria that might have initially caused the infection.
Assuming the infection is not caused by an obstruction or a separate disorder, symptoms of uncomplicated UTIs should clear up within a few days of taking antibiotics. Sometimes doctors will also prescribe a pain medication that numbs your bladder and urethra to relieve burning while urination. Either way, UTI-related pain should go away shortly after beginning a course of antibiotics.
Some of the most common antibiotics used to treat UTIs include:
- Trimethoprim or sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra)
- Fosfomycin (Monurol)
- Nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin, Macrobid)
- Ciprofloxacin (Cipro)
- Levofloxacin (Levaquin)
- Ceftriaxone (Rocephin)
- Azithromycin (Zithromax, Zmax)
- Doxycycline (Monodox, Vibramycin, others)
When taking antibiotics to treat UTIs always be sure to finish the full course of medication. This ensures that you clear all bacteria and do not get another infection.
If you have recurring UTIs, such as three or more a year, ask your doctor to recommend a special treatment plan. This involves taking a low dose of an antibiotic over a longer period to help prevent repeat infections. Having antibiotics on hand can be useful for chronic UTIs. This way, you can take immediately when symptoms appear or even just take a single dose after sex to prevent an infection from breeding. Doctors will also prescribe longer term treatment for patients who show signs of prostate or kidney infections and patients with diabetes or structural abnormalities.
Keep an eye out for symptoms so that you can get UTI treatment as soon as possible.
Home Remedies for UTI
Natural remedies can provide relief for mild urinary tract infections and prevent new infections from occuring. Most natural remedies flush out bacteria from your urinary tract, preventing the spread or multiplication of any infection. If your UTI is the result of another health condition such as an inflamed prostate or kidney stone, different types of treatments may be needed to supplement your home remedy option.
Cranberry juice is one of the most commonly known natural remedies for a UTI, however there is conflicting data on the effectiveness of this. The data supporting consumption of cranberry juice includes one study indicating that cranberry and blueberry juice can stop bacteria from sticking to the kidneys, which could prevent the spread of infections. If you are drinking cranberry juice to cure your UTI make sure it is unsweetened and in natural forms. You should avoid drinking cranberry juice if you take any blood-thinning medication and as a general rule you should only drink one glass of it a day, as large quantities can cause kidney damage.
Apple cider vinegar and honey is another drinkable option that has UTI fighting properties. The two together contain malic acid that has antibacterial properties inhibiting the spreading of infections. Studies have shown that apple cider vinegar can help prevent kidney oxidative injury. Honey also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Mix a tablespoon of the apple cider vinegar and two teaspoons of honey into warm water for most effective protection. Read more about the benefits of apple cider vinegar drinks here!
Getting UTI treatment Online
Getting UTI treatment through an online physician is a simple and easy way to get your medication fast and prevent the spread of infection.
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We started PlushCare because we wanted to improve access to affordable healthcare. We want to ensure that you can get your medications as quickly and easily as possible.
Think you may be experiencing UTI symptoms? Book your appointment today and get your symptoms taken care of.