Urinary Tract Infection
Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention
By Judy Latta
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the second most common infection of the body. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) estimates that UTIs account for about 8.3 million physician visits each year.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a urinary tract infection begins in your urinary system. Your urinary system is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Any part of your urinary system can become infected, but most infections involve the lower urinary tract — the bladder and the urethra. Urinary tract infections are more common in women than in men. The DHHS reports that one in five women develops a UTI during her lifetime.
An infection of the urethra, the tube that moves urine from the bladder out of the body, is called urethritis. An infection of the bladder is called cystitis. Urethritis and cystitis are both common, and while often irritating and sometimes painful, they are generally relatively easy to treat. If a urinary tract infection spreads to the kidneys, however, it can cause serious health risks. A kidney infection is called pyelonephritis.
WHAT CAUSES UTI?
Urine, although it contains salts and waste products, is normally free of bacteria. Under normal, healthy circumstances, the flow of urine flushes bacteria from the urinary system out of the body. An infection occurs, however, when bacteria from the colon, anus or elsewhere adheres to the opening of the urethra and multiplies.
There are several different strains of bacteria that can cause UTI, but most are caused by the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli). UTIs can also be caused by sexually transmitted microorganisms such as Chlamydia and Mycoplasma. These infections specifically affect the urethra and reproductive system.
SYMPTOMS OF A UTI
There are several symptoms often associated with UTIs. Most common is the urge to urinate frequently and a painful, burning feeling during urination. Other symptoms can include exhaustion and an uncomfortable pressure in the pelvic area.
When a UTI is present, a person’s urine typically appears cloudy and can sometimes be tinged with blood. Fever is not always present if the infection is limited to the bladder or urethra. Fever will typically occur, however, if the UTI has spread to the kidneys. Other symptoms of a kidney infection can include back pain, nausea, and/or vomiting.
TREATING AN INFECTION
UTIs are typically treated with antibiotic drugs. Often, the symptoms of a simple UTI subside within a day or two of treatment. The prescribed treatment regimen, however, usually lasts several days or even a week or more to ensure that the infection is completely eliminated.
Patients can also take pain medication and/or use a heating pad when treating a UTI. They should drink plenty of water to help the body flush bacteria from the urinary tract. Some doctors recommend that patients also drink cranberry juice because studies have indicated that cranberry juice has properties that prevent bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract.
Some people, usually women, suffer from recurring UTIs. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “nearly 20 percent of women who have a UTI will have another, and 30 percent of those will have yet another. Of the last group, 80 percent will have recurrences.”
For recurring infection or UTIs that are not cured with standard antibiotic treatment, a physician can recommend an ultrasound or x-ray of the bladder, kidneys, and ureters. They can also use cystoscopy, a lighted tube inserted in the urethra to see inside the bladder. These tests are used to determine if there is a urinary obstruction or malformation somewhere along the urinary tract. Sometimes when a urinary obstruction or malformation exists, surgery is needed to prevent future infections.
When a UTI spreads to the kidneys, the patient may have to be hospitalized and usually needs several weeks of antibiotic treatment. Kidney infections that go untreated can lead to kidney damage and sometimes even kidney failure.
According to the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC), when a UTI develops in pregnant women, it is more likely to spread to the kidneys than in non-pregnant women. One possible explanation for this is that during pregnancy the position of the urinary tract shifts as the uterus grows, making it easier for bacteria to travel up the ureters to the kidneys. If a pregnant woman develops a UTI she should be treated promptly to avoid kidney damage and other negative consequences such as pre-term labor. This is one reason most pre-natal visits include a urine test.
INFECTIONS IN CHILDREN
According to the NKUDIC, about 3 percent of children in the U.S. are affected by UTIs every year. It is often difficult to identify the symptoms of urinary tract infection in children, particularly in infants or toddlers since they don’t have the verbal skills to express how they feel.
According to the University of Stanford School of Medicine, there are signs that may indicate an infant or toddler has a UTI: “Your child may have a high fever, be irritable, and not eat. On the other hand, sometimes a child may only have a low-grade fever or loose bowel movements or just not seem healthy. You may notice that the diaper urine has an unpleasant smell. If your child has a high temperature and appears sick without signs of a runny nose or other obvious source for his discomfort for more than a day, they may need to see a doctor.”
For older children, a UTI may cause the same symptoms as in adults, including the need to empty the bladder unusually often, discomfort when urinating, and/or pressure in the pelvic area. As with adults, a child with a urinary tract infection may produce urine that looks cloudy or is tinged with blood, and may or may not have a fever.
The Mayo Clinic offers women these recommendations to prevent UTIs:
- Wipe from front to back after urinating and after a bowel movement. Doing so helps prevent bacteria in the anal region from spreading to the vagina and urethra.
- Empty your bladder soon after intercourse. Also, drink a full glass of water to help flush bacteria.
- Avoid potentially irritating feminine products. Using deodorant sprays or other feminine products such as douches and powders in the genital area can irritate the urethra.
In addition, all people are advised to drink plenty of liquids, especially water. Drinking water helps dilute your urine and ensures that you’ll urinate more frequently — allowing bacteria to be flushed from your urinary tract before an infection can begin.