Medically reviewed by Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP FNP-C on June 15, 2022
Have you ever experienced a burning sensation when you urinate? Or felt like you really needed to go but couldn’t produce much urine? If so, then you might have had a urinary tract infection (a UTI for short). The good news is that, with treatment, they tend to clear up in 2-3 days. The bad news is that while you have one, it can be a painful and uncomfortable experience.
UTIs are a common infection that affect millions each year. But even though they are common, many people don’t know much about them. That also means that they are unaware of the serious consequences that can occur. When a UTI isn’t treated correctly, it can lead to dangerous complications. Understanding more about UTIs can help you protect yourself and your health.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of UTIs. In addition, we’ll cover the causes of UTIs and suggest some questions that you can ask your doctor about UTIs.
The urinary tract is a set of organs in the body with the purpose of making, storing, and disposing of urine. Also known as the urinary system, it is an essential part of normal bodily functions. Urine is a waste product in the body. It is formed in the kidneys, then travels through the ureters to the bladder. Once enough urine has collected in the bladder, it is disposed of through the urethra.
The purpose of the kidneys is to filter out waste and extra chemicals in the body’s blood. That includes things like sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, and blood acidity.Kidneys also aid in the production of important hormones. These hormones impact certain things in the blood like red blood cells and blood pressure. The kidneys also take the toxins out of nutrients that are necessary for bodily functions.
The lower urinary tract consists of the bladder and urethra. The bladder is an organ that stores urine before your body disposes of it through the urethra. The urethra is a tube that connects the bladder to the exterior of the body. The opening is located above the vaginal opening in women. In men, it is located at the end of the penis.This part of the urinary system is often where UTIs form.
A urinary tract infection is a common bacterial infection. When bacteria enters the urethra, it can take hold and multiply in the bladder or urinary tract lining. This creates an infection that can be painful and uncomfortable.
While the lower urinary tract is where most UTIs occur, the infection can spread. If it reaches the kidneys, it can damage kidney function and can even spread into your blood, which is dangerous and can even be deadly. While this is rare, the reality is still there. That’s why it’s important to monitor the symptoms of a UTI. If they go beyond a common symptom, then you’ll want to seek medical help.
Symptoms of a UTI
There are many symptoms of a UTI that people can experience. While you might not have all of the symptoms at once, you will likely experience a few. The most common symptoms include:
- A persistent need to urinate
- Only passing small amounts of urine despite a strong urge
- A burning sensation while urinating
- Red, pink, or brown urine from blood in the urine
- Cloudy urine
- Urine with a foul smell
- Urethral discharge
- Pelvic pain around and above the pubic bone
These symptoms are often indicative of an infection in the lower urinary tract and are a sign that the bladder and urethra are irritated by the bacteria and your immune system’s reaction to it. This irritation causes the aches and pains, and the feeling that you need to urinate frequently. In combination, the symptoms are uncomfortable and painful.
If the infection has spread to the kidneys, you might have additional symptoms, including high fever, shaking or chills, nausea, or vomiting. In addition, you might experience pain in your back or side where the kidneys are located.
Causes of a UTI
The mostly likely cause of a UTI is bacteria from the anus reaching the opening of the urethra. The two holes are not so far apart, especially in women, making it easy for small amounts of fecal matter and bacteria to get into the urethra and travel to the bladder.
Women’s urethras are shorter than men’s, making them more at risk of UTIs. A shorter urethra means that bacteria have less distance to travel to cause a problem.
How does fecal bacteria reach the urethra? One common cause is sex. During sexual activity, bacteria from a partner’s hands, mouth, and genitals can get into the urethra. Keeping the genital area clean is a good way to prevent UTIs, as is urinating after sexual activity. This can flush out any foreign bacteria and clean out the urinary tract. Keeping the hands and genitals clean can also help prevent the spread of bacteria. Another reason UTIs are more common in women is menopause. During menopause, the female body stops producing as much of the hormone estrogen, which can change the tissue in the urinary tract and make it easier for bacteria to stick. This is one of the reasons behind recurrent UTIs in women, and some women are genetically predisposed to this even before menopause.
Blockages in the urinary tract are another cause of UTIs. For people classified as male at birth, enlarged prostates can cause urinary retention and infection. Kidney stones can also block the flow of urine. When urine gets stagnant, it can develop bacteria and cause issues. The use of catheters can also cause UTIs, as well as the insertion of any medical instruments during a procedure.
People with impaired immune systems, due to uncontrolled diabetes for example, or who take immune-suppressing medications, are also at increased risk of UTIs.
How is a UTI Diagnosed?
A UTI can often be diagnosed via common symptoms like those listed above, which means that telehealth providers can prescribe appropriate treatments without needing an in-person visit. If symptoms don’t respond to the prescribed treatment, you should see an in-person medical provider for tests..
If a urine study is required, a medical provider will collect a urine sample and a lab will then analyze the sample to look for red blood cells, white blood cells, and bacteria. The doctor might also take a urine culture test. This test will determine specific strains of bacteria that are in the urine. That can be helpful in figuring out the best course of action for treatment. If you have persistent or recurring UTIs, the doctor can also use imaging technology to get a look inside your urinary tract. This can help find any anatomic or other abnormalities that could be causing the UTI.
It’s always important to go to a doctor if you experience kidney infection symptoms such as blood in the urine, flank pain, fevers, chills and nausea. As mentioned earlier, this can help stop the spread of infection to the blood.
If you experience UTI symptoms, the first and most important thing is to hydrate. Drinking plenty of water can help to flush bacteria out of the system. You’ll also want to avoid things that can irritate the urinary system. That includes alcohol, caffeine, citrus, and even spicy foods.
Most t UTIs are treated with antibiotics, which will halt the growth and spread of bacteria in the urinary system. You should start to feel better within 2-3 days. Even if you start to feel better before finishing your antibiotics, always finish the entire treatment. If you stop taking antibiotics before you run out, it can lead to antibiotic resistance. Your UTI can come back even stronger, and you’ll need different antibiotics to treat it. Certain complicated UTIs might require more serious treatment. That might mean a hospital stay with IV antibiotics.
While you wait for your antibiotics to work, you can alleviate painful urination with the medication pyridium. You can also use a warm compress or heating pad on the pelvic area to relieve aches.
Questions to Ask Your Medical Provider
Even with the help of this guide, there are still some questions to save for a medical provider. They can provide more details and take your personal situations into account. Here are some of the common questions you can ask:
Why Do I Keep Getting UTIs?
Recurring UTIs are a frustrating experience. There are many different reasons why this could happen. A medical professional can shed more light on why you get frequent UTIs. They can look into an anatomical or genetic reason behind it as well.
Will UTIs Damage My Urinary System?
A doctor can answer questions you have about the long-term effects of UTIs. While a UTI is a common infection, recurrent UTIs can cause stress. You might wonder if there is serious damage from the infections. A medical professional can answer these questions.
Will a UTI Affect My Pregnancy?
Pregnancy brings about a whole range of additional stressors. When you get a UTI while pregnant, it can be concerning. Speaking to your doctor about any symptoms you have can alleviate any fear. The doctor will also take your pregnancy into consideration when finding treatment options.
Can I Take Care of a UTI at Home?
A doctor can inform you whether or not you should try and manage UTIs at home. While many of us want to avoid a trip to the doctor’s office, it might not always be possible. Your medical provider can advise you about what steps to take.
What Symptoms Should I Be Worried About?
Some symptoms of UTIs might not seem to be worrisome. And since they pass in a few days, they seem even less serious. But if you want to know what symptoms are cause for concern, speak to a doctor.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.