Urinary Tract Infections 101: From causes to treatments and more!

Woman in bed with symptoms of urinary tract infection

If you are an adult woman, chances are you have already had a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in your life.

And you’ve also probably experienced one of the most common symptoms of a UTI: a horrible burning sensation when peeing.

Urinary tract infections are among the most common types of infections. In fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates one-half of all women in the U.S. will experience one UTI in their lifetime, and one-third of women already have, before the age of 24.

In comparison, urinary tract infections are extremely rare in young men, but the risk increases with age. UTIs are more common in men after the age of 50, according to the NIH.

What causes urinary tract infections?

A urinary tract infection is typically a bacterial infection that affects one or multiple parts of your urinary system, which is made up of your urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys.

Milder UTIs involve the lower urinary tract— the urethra and bladder, while more severe cases of urinary tract infections travel up into the kidneys, according to the Mayo Clinic.

You usually show symptoms of a UTI within 1-2 days of the bacteria exposure,” says Dr. Hoffman, the head of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey.

Risk factors for UTIs

Certain things can increase your chances of a urinary tract infection. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified common risk factors for bacteria exposure in the urinary tract as follows:

  • A compromised and weakened immune system.
  • Dehydration.
  • Wiping from back to front after a bowel movement (BM). Germs can get into your urethra, which has its opening in front of the vagina (vuh-JEYE-nuh).
  • Having sexual intercourse. Germs in the vagina can be pushed into the urethra.
  • Waiting too long to pass urine. When urine stays in the bladder for a long time, more germs are made, and the worse a UTI can become.
  • Using a diaphragm for birth control, or spermicides (creams that kill sperm) with a condom.
  • Anything that makes it hard to completely empty your bladder, like a kidney stone.
  • Having diabetes, which makes it harder for your body to fight other health problems.
  • Loss of estrogen and changes in the vagina after and right before, and during menopause.
  • Having had a catheter in place. A catheter is a thin tube put through the urethra into the bladder.

Symptoms of a urinary tract infections

UTIs don’t necessarily always have signs and symptoms, but when they do they may include:

  • A frequent or intense urge to pee, even though little comes out when you go.
  • A burning feel when you urinate.
  • Cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling urine.
  • Feeling tired or shaky.
  • Pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen.
  • Fever or chills that may mean the UTI has traveled up to your kidneys.

“When treated promptly and properly, lower urinary tract infections rarely lead to complications. But left untreated, a urinary tract infection can have serious consequences,” says Dr. Hoffman.

According to the Mayo Clinic, complications of untreated UTIs may include:

  • Recurrent infections, especially in women who experience three or more UTIs.
  • Permanent kidney damage.
  • Increased risk in pregnant women of delivering low birth weight or premature infants.
  • Sepsis, which occurs when chemicals released in the bloodstream to fight an infection trigger inflammation throughout the body.

What is the best treatment for urinary tract infections?

Antibiotics prescribed by your doctor is usually the first line of treatment for urinary tract infections.

Which drugs are prescribed and for how long is dependent on your health condition and the type of bacteria found in your urine during testing at the doctor’s office.

“While symptoms usually clear up around 2-3 days after antibiotic treatment, it can take up to five days for all the bacteria in your urinary tract to die off, so it’s important to always finish taking your antibiotics even if the symptoms have gone away,” says Dr. Hoffman.

What are the best natural remedies for urinary tract infections?

The best-studied natural therapeutic and preventative for UTIs is the American cranberry, a well-known folk remedy. There have been mixed reports of effectiveness in clinical trials.

“For more mild cases in overall healthy female individuals who don’t  have a track record of UTIs, their immune system can clear the infection if they are well hydrated. Mild cases do not involve an infection past the bladder,” says Dr. Hoffman.

“However, symptoms can sometimes last for a week or so if you do not take antibiotics,” says Dr. Hoffman.

Preventative methods against UTIs for women

Unfortunately, UTIs are not 100% preventable. But there are steps you can take to try to prevent them, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    • Stay Hydrated 24/7. Drinking plenty of water helps dilute your urine and ensures that you’ll urinate more frequently.  Drink water every day. Try to aim for 6 to 8 glasses a day. Allowing bacteria to be flushed from your urinary tract before an infection can begin. Some experts also advocate using cranberry juice.
    • Wipe from front to back. Doing so after urinating and after a bowel movement helps prevent bacteria in the anal region from spreading to the vagina and urethra.
    • Drink a glass of water soon after intercourse. Drink a full glass of water to help flush bacteria and empty out your bladder.
    • 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.
    • Pee after vaginal intercourse. Use the bathroom before and after sexual intercourse. In general try and pee when you need to Don’t hold it. Pass urine before and after sex.
    • Take showers instead of tub baths.
    • Assess your birth control method. Diaphragms, or unlubricated or spermicide-treated condoms, can all contribute to bacterial growth.

Keep in mind you may follow these steps and still get a UTI. If you have symptoms of a urinary tract infection, it is important to contact your doctor.

Further treatment for chronic UTI sufferers

If you are prone to UTIs, ask your doctor about more intensive treatment options.

Health care providers may advise women who have recurrent UTIs to try one of the following treatment options, according to the NIH:

  • Take low doses of the prescribed antibiotic daily for 6 months or longer. If taken at bedtime, the medication remains in the bladder longer and may be more effective. NIH-supported research has shown this therapy to be effective without causing serious side effects.
  • Take a single dose of an antibiotic after sexual intercourse.
  • Take a short course—2 or 3 days—of an antibiotic when symptoms appear.

If you are a chronic UTI sufferer who has tried a lot of these methods without success, ask your doctor what tests can be done to see what may be causing the infections.

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