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Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Illustration of the anatomy of the urinary system, front view
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What are urinary tract infections (UTIs)?

Urinary tract infections are a serious, but common, health problem that affects millions of people each year. Women are especially prone to urinary tract infections.

What causes urinary tract infections?

Normal urine is sterile and contains fluids, salts, and waste products. It is free of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. An infection occurs when microorganisms, usually bacteria from the digestive tract, cling to the opening of the urethra, the hollow tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body, and begin to multiply.

Most infections arise from Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, which normally live in the colon.

What are the different types of urinary tract infections?

A urinary tract infection may involve different sections of the urinary tract including the following:

  • Urethritis. An infection of the urethra, the hollow tube that drains urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.

  • Cystitis. A bacterial infection in the bladder that often has moved up from the urethra.

  • Pyelonephritis. An infection of the kidneys that is usually a result of an infection that has spread up the tract, or from an obstruction in the urinary tract. An obstruction in the urinary tract causes urine to back flow into the ureters and kidneys.

  • Abscess. A collection of pus along the course of the urinary tract.

What are the symptoms of a urinary tract infection?

The following are the most common symptoms of a urinary tract infection. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Frequent urination

  • A painful, burning feeling during urination

  • Fever

  • Urine appears cloudy or reddish in color (blood may be present in the urine)

  • Feeling pain even when not urinating

  • Fatigue

  • Pain in the back or side, below the ribs

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

  • Despite an intense urge to urinate, only a small amount of urine is passed

  • Women may feel an uncomfortable pressure above the pubic bone

The symptoms of a urinary tract infection may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How are UTIs diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic tests and procedures may include the following:

  • Urinalysis. Laboratory examination of urine for various cells and chemicals, such as red blood cells, white blood cells, infection, or excessive protein.

  • Intravenous pyelogram (IVP). A series of X-rays of the kidney, ureters, and bladder with the injection of a contrast dye into the vein—to detect tumors, abnormalities, kidney stones, or any obstructions, and to assess renal blood flow.

  • Cystoscopy (also called cystourethroscopy). An examination in which a scope, a flexible tube and viewing device, is inserted through the urethra to examine the bladder and urinary tract for structural abnormalities or obstructions, such as tumors or stones.

  • Renal ultrasound. A noninvasive test in which a transducer is passed over the kidney producing sound waves which bounce off of the kidney, transmitting a picture of the organ on a video screen. The test is used to determine the size and shape of the kidney, and to detect a mass, kidney stone, cyst, or other obstruction or abnormalities.

What is the treatment for UTIs?

Specific treatment for UTIs will be determined by your physician based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Antibacterial medications

  • Other medications and/or a heating pad to relieve pain

  • Behavior modifications, including the following:

    • Drinking plenty of water to help cleanse the urinary tract of bacteria

    • Avoiding coffee, alcohol, and spicy foods

    • Quitting smoking

How can urinary tract infections be prevented?

To reduce the likelihood of developing another UTI, a patient may consider the following:

  • Drink plenty of water every day.

  • Drink cranberry juice. Large amounts of vitamin C inhibit the growth of some bacteria by acidifying the urine. Vitamin C supplements have the same effect.

  • Urinate when you feel the need and do not resist the urge to urinate.

  • Wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria around the anus from entering the vagina or urethra.

  • Take showers instead of tub baths.

  • Cleanse the genital area before/after sexual intercourse.

  • Avoid using feminine hygiene sprays and scented douches.

  • Repeated bouts of urinary tract infections can be treated with small doses of regular antibiotics.

Please consult your physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding this condition.