More women than men suffer urinary tract infections (UTIs). This is because a woman’s body copes with a lot of changes over the course of a lifetime. These include menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.
UTIs are quite common in women of all ages. In fact, the chances are as high as one in two, and you can probably expect to experience a few during your lifetime. Men can get UTIs too, but it is less common with the odds being one in 20 during their lifetime.
Although commonplace in adults, a small percentage of children also get UTIs and these are more likely to be serious — especially in younger children.
What is a urinary tract infection?
As the name suggests, a urinary tract infection can happen anywhere within your urinary system which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra.
Your urinary system is designed so that there is minimal risk of serious infection in the kidneys. This is because urine is prevented from flowing back up into the kidneys from the bladder.
If you suffer a urinary tract infection, it’s easily treatable and usually not serious or life threatening. However, if the infection spreads to your kidneys that presents a different set of problems to be treated.
Types of UTIs
When an infection affects the lower urinary tract (urethra or bladder), it may be called urethritis or, if it only affects the bladder, cystitis. When it migrates to and affects the upper urinary tract (ureters or kidneys) it is called ureteritis or, if it affects just the kidneys, pyelonephritis.
UTIs symptoms will differ depending on whether it affects your upper or lower urinary tract. You may have all or only some of these symptoms and you may have both upper and lower UTI symptoms at the same time. The type and severity of UTI symptoms will vary from person to person.
Common urinary tract infection symptoms include:
- burning sensation when passing urine
- pain in your abdomen, pelvis or back
- general feeling of being unwell
- passing urine much more frequently than usual
- feeling an urge to urinate, but being unable to, or only passing a few drops
- urinary incontinence
- feeling like the bladder is still full after going
- cloudy, bloody or dark, smelly urine
If you have an upper urinary tract infection or kidney infection you could also experience:
- high fever
- nausea and/or vomiting
- loin (lower abdominal) pain
- back pain
UTIs in young children and babies
Although commonplace in adults, a small percentage of children and babies can also get urinary tract infections. You should take your child to a doctor as soon as possible as it may be a more serious problem. Keep a look out for the following symptoms.
- high fever (38°C or above)
- new ‘wetting’ in a child who has previously been dry
- feeding problems in babies
Causes of UTIs
The culprit in more than 90% of UTI cases is a type of bacteria called Escherichia coli, (E. coli). These bacteria normally live in the bowel and around the anus. E. coli bacteria is usually benign in its natural environment of the bowel. However, the bacteria will thrive when introduced to urine’s acidic state.
Urinary tract infections normally occur when E.coli bacteria get into the urine and begin to grow. The infection usually starts at the opening of the urethra, that’s where the urine leaves the body, and moves up to the bladder. If the infection isn’t treated at this point, it will continue on and quickly infect the kidneys.
It’s easy for E. coli bacteria to move from the area around the anus and the perineum, to the opening of the urethra. The two most common causes are sexual intercourse or not wiping from front to back after going to the toilet. Women are more prone to UTIs because they have shorter urethras, which provide the bacteria a quicker pathway to the bladder.
The normal process of urination flushes the bacteria out through the urethra. However, if the infection has already taken hold and there are too many bacteria, urinating may not stop their spread.
The danger here is the infection spreading further. If it reaches the kidneys, it can cause a kidney infection (pyelonephritis), which can become a very serious and even life-threatening condition if not treated immediately.
Common factors for developing UTIs
Some people are more prone to developing UTIs than others. The reasons can include:
- Being female and sexually active — partly because the female urethra is shorter and therefore easier for bacteria to reach the bladder
- Using a urinary catheter
- Having diabetes — changes to the immune system can make you more vulnerable to infection. Also, a higher sugar level in the urine makes it easier for bacteria to grow
- Being a man with an enlarged prostate — this can cause the bladder to only partially empty
- Babies — especially those born with congenital abnormalities of the urinary system
Additionally, other factors that increase the likelihood of UTIs include:
- Being pregnant
- Having tumours or stones in the urinary tract
- Using a diaphragm as contraception
- Having a medical condition involving the bladder or kidneys
- Anything that obstructs the flow of urine out of the bladder
Diagnosing a UTI
Whether your symptoms indicate an upper or lower urinary tract infection, you should see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor may diagnose a UTI based purely on the symptoms, or they might confirm the symptoms with a simple urine dipstick test in the surgery. Occasionally, a urine sample will be sent to the laboratory for testing to identify the specific cause of the UTI, and to determine which antibiotic treatment is most suitable.
A prescribed antibiotic is the best course of action for UTIs. These should start clearing up the infection after a few days.
The type, strength, dosage and how long you need to take antibiotics will depend on the severity of your symptoms and whether your doctor is prescribing for a woman, man, child or baby.
Important! It is important to complete the entire course prescribed by your doctor, even if you are no longer experiencing symptoms of a UTI.
Some helpful some tips for preventing UTIs.
- Drink lots of water
- Urinate as soon as you feel the need
- Choose showers over baths
- Wipe your bottom from front to back to prevent bacteria from around the anus entering the urethra
- Make sure you have adequate lubrication during sex
- Cleanse your genital area before sex
- Urinate after sex to flush away any bacteria that may have entered your urethra
- Avoid using feminine hygiene products such as sprays or douches
- If you use a diaphragm, ask your doctor about other forms of contraception you could use
- Take vitamin C or drink cranberry juice — they are said to be urinary antiseptics
- Wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothes
If you have a lower urinary tract infection, antibiotic treatment usually clears it up. If you leave it too long and the infection spreads to the upper urinary tract, other more serious problems can present themselves including: permanent scarring of the urinary tract (which could lead to further problems), pyelonephritis (kidney infection) and beyond that, blood infections.
Kimberly-Clark makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. This information should be used only as a guide and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.