If you’ve never had a urinary tract infection (UTI), you’re in rare company. UTIs account for over 8 million visits to healthcare providers in the United States every year. Women have a 50-50 chance of developing at least one UTI in her lifetime. Men can get urinary tract infections, too, and when they do the symptoms can be more serious. Let’s learn more about UTIs, what causes them and how to prevent them.
WHAT IS A URINARY TRACT INFECTION?
The human urinary tract includes the kidneys; a pair of tubes called ureters that run from the kidneys to the bladder; the urinary bladder; and the urethra — the tube that drains urine from the bladder. A urinary tract infection can occur in any of these body parts. Most commonly, a UTI affects the urethra.
WHAT CAUSES A URINARY TRACT INFECTION?
Infections of the urinary tract occur when bacteria (germs) get into the urethra from outside. These germs then colonize the urethra and may make their way into the bladder, the ureters or even the kidney.
The most common source of infections in the urinary tract is the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacterium that normally lives in the bowel. Poor bathroom hygiene can relocate these bacteria from the anus to the opening of the urethra. Other things that can cause UTIs include sexual intercourse and failing to empty the bladder often.
Women are much more prone to developing a UTI because of the close proximity between their urethral opening and the anus. Women also have a shorter urethra, which allows bacteria to move into the bladder more quickly in women than in men.
SYMPTOMS OF A URINARY TRACT INFECTION
When urinating (‘peeing’) becomes uncomfortable, you may have a UTI. Here are some common signs and symptoms of an infection:
- Pain or burning sensation when you urinate
- Frequent urge to urinate
- Feeling like you can’t empty your bladder
- Urinating only a small amount on a frequent basis
- Generalized pain low in the abdomen
- Feeling tired, shaky or weak
- Urine that smells bad
- Cloudy or dark urine, or blood in the urine
- Delirium (in older adults)
TREATMENT OF URINARY TRACT INFECTION
To diagnose a UTI, your healthcare provider will ask you to provide a sample of urine. This sample will be cultured to see if it contains bacteria. If you have bacteria in your urine, you will receive a prescription for antibiotic medication. The type of antibiotic will depend on the type of bacteria causing your infection.
It’s important you take the full prescription of antibiotics, even if you start feeling better within a few days. Your symptoms should, in fact, improve while you’re on antibiotics, but feeling better does not mean the infection is cured. Take all the pills; do not stop them early.
PREVENTING URINARY TRACT INFECTIONS
You can take several steps to reduce your risk of developing a UTI, including:
- Women should always wipe from front to back after using the toilet. This technique keeps bowel bacteria away from the urethral opening.
- Urinate and shower after sexual activity.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Empty your bladder as soon as you feel the urge to go. Do not wait to urinate.
- Women should wear cotton underwear. Bacteria thrive in damp environments, and cotton undergarments help keep the area around the urethra dry.
Despite what you may have heard, there is no evidence drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry capsules will help cure or prevent urinary tract infections. This theory has been tested by researchers and found not to work.
PREVENTION IS KEY WHEN IT COMES TO URINARY TRACT INFECTIONS
While it’s possible a UTI can cause serious complications (such as a kidney infection), urinary tract infections usually represent just a nuisance to be dealt with. Keep hydrated and practice good toileting hygiene to help prevent UTIs from occurring.