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A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection from microbes. These are organisms that are too small to be seen without a microscope.

Most UTIs are caused by bacteria, but some are caused by fungi and in rare cases by viruses. UTIs are among the most common infections in humans.

Your urinary tract is made up of your:

  • kidneys
  • ureters
  • bladder
  • urethra

Most UTIs only involve the urethra and bladder, in the lower tract. However, UTIs can involve the ureters and kidneys, in the upper tract. Although upper tract UTIs are rarer than lower tract UTIs, they’re also usually more severe.

Symptoms of a UTI depend on what part of the urinary tract is infected.

Lower tract UTI symptoms

Lower tract UTIs affect the urethra and bladder. Symptoms of a lower tract UTI include:

Upper tract UTI symptoms

Upper tract UTIs affect the kidneys. These can be potentially life threatening if bacteria move from the infected kidney into the blood. This condition, called urosepsis, can cause dangerously low blood pressure, shock, and death.

Symptoms of an upper tract UTI include:

Symptoms of an upper tract urinary infection in men are similar to those in women. However, men with a lower tract UTI may sometimes also experience rectal pain.

Women with a lower tract urinary infection may experience pelvic pain. This is in addition to the other common symptoms.

Anything that reduces your bladder emptying or irritates the urinary tract can lead to a UTI. There are also many factors that can put you at an increased risk of a getting a UTI.

These risk factors include:

Most UTI risk factors for men are the same as those for women. However, having an enlarged prostate can also increase UTI risk.

While it’s been widely believed that wiping from back to front after using the bathroom increased the risk of recurring UTIs, older research showed that this isn’t the case.

However, there are still some risk factors unique to female anatomy.

Shorter urethra

In female bodies, the urethra is very close to both the vagina and the anus. This increases the likelihood of developing UTIs. Bacteria that may naturally occur around both the vagina and anus can lead to infection in the urethra and the rest of the urinary tract.

Urethras in women are also shorter, and the bacteria have a shorter distance to travel to enter the bladder.

Sex

Pressure on the female urinary tract during penetrative sex can move bacteria from around the anus into the bladder. Oral sex can also introduce bacteria into the urethra, increasing the risk of infection.

Peeing after sex may help reduce the risk of infection.

Spermicides

Spermicides may increase UTI risk, because they can disrupt the vaginal microbiome.

Condom use during sex

Non-lubricated latex condoms may increase friction and irritate the skin during sexual intercourse. This may increase the risk of a UTI.

However, there are many reasons to use condoms. They’re important for reducing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and preventing unwanted pregnancy.

To help prevent friction and skin irritation from condoms, be sure to use enough water-based lubricant during sex.

Avoid using condoms that have been coated with spermicide.

Diaphragms

Diaphragms may put pressure on the urethra. This can decrease bladder emptying, increasing the risk for bacterial growth and infection.

Decrease in estrogen levels

After menopause, a decrease in estrogen level changes the normal bacteria in your vagina. This can increase the risk for a UTI.

If you suspect that you have a UTI based on your symptoms, contact your doctor. Your doctor will review your symptoms and perform a physical examination. To confirm a diagnosis of a UTI, your doctor will need to test your urine for microbes.

The urine sample needs to be a “clean catch” sample. This means the urine sample is collected at the middle of your urinary stream, rather than at the beginning. This helps to avoid collecting bacteria or yeast from your skin, which can contaminate the sample. Your doctor will explain to you how to get a clean catch.

When testing the sample, your doctor will look for a higher number of white blood cells in your urine. This can indicate an infection.

Your doctor will also do a urine culture to test for bacteria or fungi. The culture can help identify the cause of the infection. It can also help your doctor choose a treatment.

If your doctor suspects the UTI is viral, special testing may need to be performed. Viruses are rare causes of UTIs but can be seen in people who have had organ transplants or who have other conditions that weaken their immune system.

Upper tract UTIs

If your doctor suspects that you have an upper tract UTI, they may also need to do a complete blood count (CBC) and blood cultures, in addition to the urine test.

A blood culture can make certain that your infection hasn’t spread to your blood stream.

Most UTIs go away after treatment. However, some people develop chronic UTIs. Chronic UTIs either don’t go away after treatment or keep recurring. Recurrent UTIs are common among women.

If you have chronic UTIs, your doctor may want to check for any abnormalities or obstructions in your urinary tract. Here are some common tests:

  • An ultrasound is where a device called a transducer is passed over your abdomen. The transducer uses ultrasound waves to create an image of your urinary tract organs that are displayed on a monitor.
  • An intravenous pyelogram (IVP) involves injecting a dye into your body that travels through your urinary tract. Then, an X-ray of your abdomen is taken. The dye highlights your urinary tract on the X-ray image.
  • A cystoscopy uses a small camera that’s inserted through your urethra and up into your bladder to see inside your bladder. During a cystoscopy, your doctor may remove a small piece of bladder tissue and test it to rule out bladder inflammation or cancer as a cause of your symptoms.
  • A computerized tomography (CT) scan gets more detailed images of your urinary system.

If you’re pregnant and have symptoms of a UTI, see your doctor right away.

UTIs during pregnancy can cause high blood pressure and premature delivery. UTIs during pregnancy are also more likely to spread to the kidneys.

Treatment of a UTI depends on whether it’s:

  • bacterial (most common)
  • viral
  • fungal

Your doctor will be able to determine which it is by looking at your test results.

Bacterial UTIs are treated with antibiotics. Viral UTIs are treated with medications called antivirals. Often, the antiviral cidofovir is the choice to treat viral UTIs. Fungal UTIs are treated with medications called antifungals.

The form of antibiotic used to treat a bacterial UTI usually depends on which part of the tract is involved.

Lower tract UTIs can usually be treated with oral antibiotics. Upper tract UTIs require intravenous antibiotics. These antibiotics are put directly into your veins.

Sometimes, bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics. To reduce your risk of antibiotic resistance, your doctor will likely put you on the shortest treatment course possible. Treatment typically lasts no more than 1 week.

Results from your urine culture can help your doctor select an antibiotic treatment that will work best against the type of bacteria that’s causing your infection.

Treatments other than antibiotics for bacterial UTIs are being examined. At some point, UTI treatment without antibiotics may be an option for bacterial UTIs by using cell chemistry to change the interaction between the body and the bacteria.

There are no home remedies that can cure a UTI, but there are some things that you can do that can help your medication work better.

These home remedies for UTIs, like drinking more water, may help your body clear the infection faster.

Cranberries

Cranberry juice or cranberries don’t treat a UTI once it’s started. However, a chemical in cranberries may help prevent certain types of bacteria that can cause a bacterial UTI from attaching to the lining of your bladder. This may be helpful in preventing future UTIs.

While cranberries are a popular remedy, the research on their effect on UTIs is mixed. More conclusive studies are needed.

Still, the American Urological Association says that clinicians can offer cranberry juice to patients as a way to prevent recurrent UTIs. But they note that there’s a low level of certainty that this will work.

It’s important to treat a UTI — the earlier, the better. Untreated UTIs become more and more severe the further they spread.

A UTI is usually easiest to treat in the lower urinary tract. An infection that spreads to the upper urinary tract is much more difficult to treat and is more likely to spread into your blood, causing sepsis. This is a life threatening event.

If you suspect that you have a UTI, contact your doctor as soon as possible. A simple examination and urine or blood test could save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Everyone can take the following steps to help prevent UTIs:

  • Drink six to eight glasses of water daily.
  • Don’t hold urine in for long periods of time.
  • Talk with your doctor about managing any urinary incontinence or difficulties fully emptying your bladder.

Women are 30 times more likely than men to get UTIs. Certain steps may help prevent UTIs in women.

If you’re perimenopausal or postmenopausal, using topical or vaginal estrogen prescribed by your doctor could make a difference in preventing UTIs. If your doctor believes that intercourse is a factor of your recurrent UTIs, they may recommend taking preventive antibiotics after sex, or long term.

Some studies have shown that long-term preventive use of antibiotics in older adults reduced the risk for UTIs.

Taking daily cranberry supplements or using vaginal probiotics, like lactobacillus, may also help in the prevention of UTIs. Some studies suggest that using probiotic vaginal suppositories can decrease the occurrence and recurrence of UTIs, by changing the bacteria found in the vagina.

Be sure to discuss with your doctor what the right prevention plan is for you.

UTIs are a relatively common condition. They can involve infection of the bladder, urethra, ureters, or kidneys. The most common cause is bacteria, though they can also be caused by viruses or fungi.

If you suspect you may have a UTI, it’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.