Woman discusses UTI symptoms and treatment with her doctor

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Urinary tract infections: Understanding the symptoms and treatment

  • About 50 percent of all women experience a UTI at some point in their lives
  • One very common UTI symptom is burning with urination
  • An untreated UTI can quickly turn into a more serious infection

Many of us have felt it at one time or another. You need to pee (bad), and then when you do, you feel the burn.

Most women recognize that as a sign of a urinary tract infection (UTI).

But UTIs can be sneaky. Some symptoms that seem like a UTI can occur with other conditions. Sometimes UTIs don’t have obvious symptoms, or the symptoms may vary a bit, depending on which part of the urinary tract is infected.

So whether it’s your first UTI or your tenth, it’s important to know about the symptoms, causes and treatment for UTIs.

What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

A UTI is an infection that occurs anywhere along the urinary tract, which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra.

  • Kidneys – make urine by filtering blood and are located near the middle of the back on either side of the spine 
  • Ureters – small tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder.
  • Bladder – located in the center of the lower pelvis.
  • Urethra – small tube from the bladder that carries urine out of the body.

Most UTIs are caused by bacteria. While men and women can both get UTIs, they are far more common in women. In fact, about half of all women experience a UTI at some point in their lives, and many women have more than one.

Because an untreated UTI can quickly turn into a more serious infection, the faster you treat it, the better.

Types of UTIs

There are two main types of UTIs, a lower tract UTI and an upper tract UTI. Most of us are familiar with the lower tract UTI, which affects the bladder and urethra.

An upper tract UTI is more serious and affects the kidneys and ureters.

Symptoms of a UTI

The most common UTI symptoms include burning with urination, pain in the bladder area and frequent urination. But UTI symptoms can vary depending on where the infection is located.

Lower tract UTI symptoms:

  • Frequent, painful urination
  • Burning with urination
  • Dark or cloudy urine
  • Blood in urine
  • Discharge
  • Lower abdomen discomfort or pressure

Upper tract UTI symptoms:

  • Upper back and side pain
  • High fever
  • Shaking and chills
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Sometimes a UTI can occur without causing obvious symptoms. For example, if a person’s immune system is weakened, the UTI may not trigger the body’s infection-fighting response. Many of the symptoms we experience with a UTI are part of this response – including inflammation, pain and fever. In addition, elderly adults who have a UTI may develop cognitive symptoms, known as delirium.

One other important note about symptoms. Blood in the urine can indicate a serious health issue. Let your provider know promptly if you see blood in your urine, with or without other UTI symptoms.

Causes of a UTI

Most UTIs occur when bacteria get into the urethra and spread to the bladder. Sometimes the body can get rid of the bacteria on its own. If it can’t, an infection sets in. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the ureters and kidneys.

Any of these factor can contribute to a UTI:

  • Female anatomy
  • Sexual activity
  • Poor hygiene
  • Hormone changes related to menopause
  • Blockages in the urinary tract, such as kidney stones
  • Weakened immune system related to a chronic illness like diabetes

What’s anatomy got to do with it? In women, the opening of the urethra is very close to the vagina and anus, and normal bacteria from these structures can easily spread during sexual activity or possibly due to poor hygiene, such as not wiping from front to back. Also, the urethra is short compared to men, so the bacteria can easily reach the bladder.

In addition, anything that prevents the bladder from completely emptying or that changes the body’s normal response to an infection can contribute to a UTI.

Treatment for a UTI 

It’s important see a health care provider if you suspect a UTI so other possible causes of your symptoms can be ruled out. UTIs are confirmed by testing a urine sample. If it shows that bacteria are present, you’ll start antibiotic treatment right away.

But it can take several days to identify exactly what type of bacteria caused the infection. If needed, your provider may change your antibiotic or have you take it for a longer time.

Quick UTI treatment starts here. A UTI can usually be treated with an online visit, like Allina Health Everyday Online. This is especially convenient if symptoms start while you’re away from home, after clinic hours or over the weekend, since online visits have 24-hour access.

Antibiotics for a UTI

Once you start taking an antibiotic, you’ll feel better within a day or two, but make sure you take the antibiotic until it is gone. This helps your body fight off all the bacteria so the infection doesn’t return.

An upper tract UTI is a more serious condition. Depending on how severe it is, you may be treated with an oral antibiotic along with an injectable antibiotic. In the most severe cases, intravenous antibiotics are used. That means the antibiotic is put directly into your veins.

Home remedies for a UTI

While many women have heard they should drink cranberry juice, it won’t cure a UTI. Likewise, these home remedies are not cures, but they may help you feel better faster or avoid a UTI in the future.

  • Ask your pharmacist for an over-the-counter pain medicine that targets the urinary tract.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. That helps flush some types of bacteria out of the urinary tract more quickly.
  • Avoid fluids that irritate the bladder, like coffee and alcohol.
  • Don’t hold your pee for long periods.
  • Avoid scented soaps that can cause irritation.
  • Pee within 10 minutes after sexual activity.
  • Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom.
  • If you are past menopause and get frequent UTIs, vaginal estrogen may be beneficial to rejuvenate and protect genital tissue.

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