Urinary Tract Infection: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
Reviewed by Charles Young, MD
A urinary tract infection or UTI refers to an infection in any part of the urinary system, including the bladder, kidneys, ureters and urethra. Doctors and urologists may further subdivide UTIs into upper and lower urinary tract infections. Upper infections are located in the kidneys while lower UTIs are located in the bladder and urethra. Most people suffer from lower UTIs.
Women are far more prone to getting urinary tract infections simply because their urethras are smaller but wider than a man’s. Germs or bacteria have more chance of entering the woman’s body and then traveling to the bladder and kidneys. In contrast, germs and bacteria tend to stay in a man’s urethra.
Normally, the urinary tract can successfully kill off any invading bacteria or other microorganisms but sometimes the defenses fail. But how do bacteria get into the urethra in the first place? By a variety of methods, including:
- Sexual contact with a partner suffering from a UTI
- Using catheters – even one-use-only catheters
- Using a diaphragm, intra-uterine device (IUD) or another contraceptive that needs to be inserted into the woman in order to work
- Being born with a defect of the urinary tract
- Any disease that reduces the body’s natural immune system, such as AIDS
- Any medication that reduces the body’s natural immune system, such as corticosteroids
- Infrequent washing of the genitals
- Accidentally getting fecal material onto the vagina or penis. This is thought to be the most common way of contracting a urinary tract infection.
Symptoms of a urinary tract infection are unmistakable. In order to get a definite diagnosis, patients may need to submit a urine sample to their doctors so they can find traces of invading bacteria shed in the urine.
Common symptoms include:
- Severe, sudden, burning pain in the genitals when urinating. This pain can be so bad that it can bring tears to the eyes or make a patient break out into a sweat.
- Increased need to urinate
- Trouble urinating more than a little bit at a time
- Foul-smelling or very strong-smelling urine – even a few drops can stink
- Cloudy-colored urine
- Aching pain under the ribs towards the spine, where the kidneys are
- Abdominal pain or tenderness, which makes wearing skirts, pants or underpants painful.
- Fever which may or may not include sweating and chills
- Nausea with or without vomiting.
The good news about urinary tract infections is that they usually respond well to treatment, as long as they are caught early. Lower UTIs in particular can degenerate into dangerous kidney infections if there is a delay in treatment.
Patients are given antibiotics such as amoxicillin, painkillers and sometimes numbing creams to help sooth burning sensations. Patients are also urged to drink more water and cranberry juice to make urinating less painful and to prevent future infections.
Menopausal or post-menopausal women prone to chronic urinary tract infections may be placed on estrogen replacement hormones.
Any patient suffering from a UTI should refrain from having sex until the infection goes away.