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What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

UTI is one of the most common health concerns among adult women. Up to half of all women will experience a UTI sometime in their lives.

Any part of the urinary tract can become infected: urethra, bladder (infection is called cystitis), ureters and/or kidneys. Bladder infections are common and relatively easily treated, whereas kidney infections are less common but more serious.

Symptoms may include:

  • A frequent desire to urinate, even after immediately having done so
  • A feeling of straining toward the end of urination
  • A feeling of incomplete emptying of the bladder
  • Pain and burning when urinating
  • A need to urinate several times during the night
  • Urine that is cloudy or bloody (pink or red)
  • Pain in the abdomen or back
  • Fever
  • Poor urinary stream (usually in men)

Not everyone will have all these symptoms, and women may experience them to varying degrees. In some cases, symptoms will be unnoticeable.

Causes:

UTIs develop most commonly when bacteria multiply in the external genital area, then move up into the urinary tract.

Women get UTIs more often than men primarily due to anatomy. In women, the opening of the urethra is closer to the external genital area and anus, so bacteria are more likely to enter the urethra, and the urethra is shorter so bacteria are more likely to move up it.

Women's urinary tracts can actively protect against UTI in several ways. Urination flushes bacteria out of the urinary tract. Bacteria that are normally present around a women's external genital area guard the urethral opening, discouraging replication and movement of unwanted bacteria. The urethra and bladder are usually able to protect themselves against infection, too.

Unfortunately, many factors can disrupt this protective system. Women are more likely to get UTI when they have a new sex partner, are pregnant or have certain illnesses that obstruct the bladder from emptying completely. Also, post-menopausal women tend to get UTI more frequently. 

See Prevention for additional causes.

Treatment at UHS:

If you experience UTI symptoms, please get medical advice. Infections that are treated earlier will cause you less discomfort and are easier to treat. The aim of treatment is to eradicate infection.

First call UHS, which may save you a trip. Call 734-764-8320, option 2, and ask for Nurse Advice. A nurse will return your call, assess your situation by phone, then she may prescribe medication, provide self-care advice, and/or arrange for you to visit to UHS. (When UHS is closed, you may call 866-204-1082 for urgent health concerns). 

For temporary relief of discomfort, a medication (called Uristat in non-prescription form and Pyridium by prescription) is available. This medication is not an antibiotic so will not cure a UTI. It should be used only until you are able to have a medical evaluation. This medication will cause urine and tears to turn orange. Women should not wear contacts while using this medication, and stop taking this medication 24 hours before any urine testing. 

Be sure to take all medications as directed, especially antibiotics. Even though symptoms may disappear within a day or so, it is important to take all your antibiotics because the infection may flare up again and become difficult to eliminate.

If you experience UTI symptoms after treatment, it's important to seek medical advice again because your infection may require additional testing, for example to make sure that infection is gone or to identify the type of bacteria causing infection, and treatment.

For women who frequently experience UTI related to sexual activity, antibiotics may be prescribed that can be taken preventively after sex.

Kidney infections require more intensive antibiotic treatment and follow-up tests. Hospitalization is sometimes necessary.

Prevention:

These suggestions are intended to help prevent and resolve UTI, but they should not be used in place of antibiotic treatment.

  • Drink, drink, drink! The more liquids one drinks the faster urine forms to dilute and flush out any bacteria. Hydrating fluids, such as water and fruit juice are best. A daily intake of 2 quarts (eight 8-ounce glasses) is recommended. Cranberry juice has traditionally been used to prevent UTI and research seems to substantiate that benefit, but it will not cure a UTI, and cranberry juice is not recommended if you have an active UTI.
  • Urinate often and try to empty the bladder as completely as possible.
  • Urinate after intercourse to flush the urethra.
  • Wipe from front to back to reduce movement of bacteria from the anus towards the urethra.
  • Avoid products such as soaps, bubble baths and douches that irritate the urethra opening.
  • When using condoms, use plenty of silicone- or water-based lubricant to minimize friction that can irritate the urethral opening.
  • If you are sensitive to one kind of spermicide, try switching types or brands to find one that works for you. For example, if you use foam, try a different brand of foam or try a vaginal insert instead.
  • Diaphragms apply indirect pressure on the urethra and can reduce urine flow. If you use a diaphragm and frequently get UTI, you may want to try a different type, or switch to a different form of contraception.

Further information:

For questions about urinary tract infections and treatment, call (734) 764-8320 and ask for Nurse Advice. 

For illustrations of the urinary tract and more, see Medline Plus.