Urinary tract infections and bladder cancer share common symptoms such as frequent and painful urination. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are infections of the bladder, or less commonly, the kidney. These infections are different than bladder cancer, which is when cells in the bladder mutate and replicate uncontrollably.

While some symptoms of bladder cancer are similar to UTIs, they are very different diseases. See a doctor if you have symptoms of a UTI or bladder cancer. They can determine the cause and help you get the appropriate treatment.

Read on to learn how UTIs compare with bladder cancer in terms of symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment.

If you start having any abnormal symptoms with urination, such as pain or increased frequency, talk with a doctor. They’ll be able to run some tests and determine the cause of your symptoms.

If you think your child might have a UTI, talk with their pediatrician. A child may not always be able to describe their symptoms to you. In infants, toddlers, and the elderly, a fever can be a symptom of a UTI.

UTI symptoms

Symptoms of a UTI can include:

  • painful or burning urination
  • frequent urination
  • blood in the urine
  • feeling like you need to urinate but nothing comes out
  • lower abdominal or groin pressure

An untreated bladder infection may spread to the kidneys. Symptoms of a kidney infection can include:

  • fever/chills
  • lower back pain
  • nausea and/or vomiting

Bladder cancer symptoms

Most commonly, the first symptom of bladder cancer is blood in the urine. However, it can have other symptoms similar to UTIs which can include:

  • frequent urination
  • painful or burning urination
  • frequent urination
  • feeling like you need to go but nothing comes out

When bladder cancer spreads, other symptoms may appear, including:

  • one-sided lower back pain
  • abdominal pain
  • trouble urinating
  • unexplained and unintentional weight loss
  • fatigue
  • swelling of the feet

Can frequent UTIs lead to bladder cancer?

Some studies have linked frequent UTIs to the later development of bladder cancer due to the repeated inflammatory response. However, this is a rare occurrence, and more research is needed to confirm this connection.

If you’re concerned about your risk of bladder cancer or the frequency of UTIs you experience, have a conversation with a doctor. They can review your medical history and determine the best course of action.

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While UTIs and bladder cancer share some common symptoms, their causes and risk factors are entirely different.

UTI causes and risk factors

UTIs are usually caused by bacteria that enter the urethra and get into the urinary tract. The bacteria is usually from the skin or the rectum. Women are more likely to get UTIs than men because their urethras are shorter and closer to the rectum, making infection easier.

Other risk factors for UTIs include:

  • previous UTIs
  • sexual activity
  • pregnancy
  • poor hygiene
  • age (more likely in older adults and young children)
  • any structural issues in the urinary tract
  • changes to the vaginal flora like from spermicides or hormone changes

Bladder cancer causes and risk factors

Bladder cancer is caused by changes or mutations in bladder cells that turn them into cancerous cells. There are a variety of risk factors for bladder cancer, but these don’t directly cause the cancer, just increase the risk of possibly developing bladder cancer.

These risk factors include:

  • tobacco use, especially cigarettes
  • being assigned male at birth
  • older age
  • being white
  • family history of bladder cancer
  • certain genetic mutations like: HRAS, RB1, PTEN/MMAC1, NAT2, GSTM1
  • prolonged use of urinary catheters
  • past radiation therapy to the pelvis or treatment with certain cancer drugs like cyclophosphamide
  • drinking water treated with chlorine

Can bladder cancer cause UTIs?

Bladder cancer can sometimes cause more UTIs. This is because the cancer interferes with the bladder’s protective lining, making it harder to prevent or treat infection. If you have bladder cancer, talk with your treatment team about your risk for UTIs.

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To diagnose a UTI, a doctor will first ask questions about your symptoms and your general health, and they may do a physical exam. They may also ask you for a urine sample to check for certain cells or bacteria. A urinalysis can confirm a UTI diagnosis.

Doctor use a variety of tests to diagnose bladder cancer and rule out other causes of your reported symptoms. Along with a personal and family medical history, a urine sample, and physical exam, other tests that might be done include:

  • Cystoscopy: In this procedure, a doctor uses a cystoscope to to look inside the bladder and urethra for any abnormal areas
  • Biopsy: A doctor may do a biopsy during a cystoscopy if they see any abnormal tissue or cells that warrant further examination under a microscope.
  • Computed tomography (CT) urogram or intravenous pyelogram (IVP): A doctor may use these imaging tests to look for tumors in the kidneys, bladder, and/or ureters.
  • Urine tumor marker test: This test checks for tumor markers made in the urine by bladder cancer cells or the body’s response to bladder cancer.

UTIs and bladder cancer are caused by very different things, and the treatment is very different as well.

UTI treatment

Treatment for UTIs usually consists of antibiotics and home treatment like drinking plenty of fluids. If a kidney infection is present, sometimes intravenous antibiotics are needed as well.

If your symptoms do not go away after the course of treatment, let your doctor know.

Bladder cancer treatment

Bladder cancer, on the other hand, may require several different kinds of treatment, such as:

While there are similar symptoms for both conditions, UTIs and bladder cancer are very different diagnoses with different causes, risk factors, and treatments.

Symptoms of bladder cancer, especially in its early stages, can look like UTI symptoms, which is why it’s important to see a doctor if you have UTI symptoms so a diagnosis can be made.

If you’re still having symptoms after treatment for a UTI, have a conversation with your doctor. They can determine whether an alternate antibiotic is needed or if something else may be causing your symptoms.