Do you have an intense urge to urinate, discomfort while urinating, or do you urinate frequently? These are symptoms of urinary tract infection (UTI). This infection is quite common, especially among women. About 60% of women have at least one episode of UTI in their lifetime. Many women have recurrent UTI.

What is Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)?

UTI is an infection of any part of the urinary system, which includes urethra, bladder, ureters (long tubes connecting the kidneys to the bladder) and kidneys. Of these structures, the bladder and urethra (lower urinary tract) are commonly affected. Infection of the lower urinary tract can be annoying and painful but can be treated successfully. However, if the infection spreads to the kidneys, serious consequences can occur.

Signs and Symptoms of UTI

A UTI causes irritation and reddening of the lining of the urinary tract, which may produce one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent urination
  • Urgent need to urinate
  • Burning sensation or pain while urinating
  • A strong, persistent urge to urinate
  • Urinary incontinence (urine leakage)
  • Blood in the urine
  • Abnormal urine color (cloudy)
  • A foul or strong smell of urine
  • Pain in the pelvic region, abdomen, the side (flank), or lower back
  • Pressure in the lower pelvis

These symptoms can be accompanied by pain during sex, fever (>100 degrees Fahrenheit), fatigue, vomiting, confusion or other mental change. Seek immediate medical care when you notice these symptoms.

What causes UTI?

UTIs are usually caused by bacteria (in about 90% cases), and rarely yeast, which enters the urethra and bladder. These bacteria are present in the large intestine, which can move from the anus to the urethra. These micro-organisms multiply and cause inflammation and pain.

The urinary system has its own defense mechanism, which prevents the entry of these micro-organisms. But sometimes, these defenses fail and allow the microscopic bacteria to invade the urinary system.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a common causative organism of UTI, which is generally found in the gastrointestinal tract.

Why do women have a higher risk of UTI?

Although anyone can get UTI, women encounter more UTIs than men. This is because of the anatomy – women have short urethras and it is closer to the anus. This makes it easy for the bacteria to enter the bladder. Having sexual intercourse can also introduce the bacteria into the urinary system.

Risk factors in women

The following are the risk factors, which can increase the chance of having a UTI:

Being sexually active: Sexually active women tend to have more UTIs. Also, women who have a new sexual partner are at a high risk.

Using certain birth controls: Diaphragms and spermicidal agents can increase the risk of UTIs. Spermicidal agents kill the good bacteria that protect from UTI.

Being pregnant: Pregnancy hormones can change the bacterial composition in the urinary tract, resulting in an increased risk of UTI. Pregnant women can have trouble emptying the bladder, the urine remaining in the bladder can increase the risk of UTI, too.

Older age: Women who have gone through menopause have reduced estrogen levels, which leads to drying and thinning of the vaginal tissue; thus, making older women vulnerable to UTI.

Diabetes: Diabetes can reduce the immunity and cause nerve damage that leads to incomplete emptying of the bladder; thereby increasing UTI risk.

Urinary tract abnormalities: Congenital abnormalities that cause the urine to retain in the urethra or do not allow the urine to excrete normally, can also increase the risk of UTI.

Obstructions in the urinary tract: Conditions that block the urinary tract such as kidney stones can increase the risk of UTI.

Catheter use: Catheter is a thin tube that is inserted into the bladder, usually used for individuals who cannot urinate on their own, particularly after surgery. These individuals are at higher risk of UTIs.

Treatment of UTI

UTIs are usually treated with antibiotics, drugs that kill bacteria and fight the infection. Your doctor will prescribe the drugs that are best to treat the specific bacteria that is causing your infection.

The symptoms of the infection will usually reduce in a few days. This does not mean that you should stop taking your medicines. It is important to complete the course of the prescribed antibiotics, if not the infection can return.

Pain medicines or analgesics can also be prescribed to relieve pain and burning while urinating.

If you have frequent UTIs, you may be prescribed the antibiotics taken for the first onset of symptoms. You may be given low-dose antibiotics for six months. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to be taken on a daily basis, alternate days, or after sexual intercourse. You may also be given vaginal estrogen therapy, if you have gone through menopause. Severe UTIs are treated with intravenous antibiotics in a hospital.

Preventing UTIs

The following measures may reduce the risk of UTI:

Drink lot of fluids: Drinking a lot of water, at least 6 to 8 glasses per day, ensures that you will urinate more often, letting the bacteria to be flushed out from the urinary tract.

Wipe from front to back: Doing this after a bowel movement or urinating, prevents the bacteria in the anal area from reaching the urethra and vagina.

Urinate when you need to: Do not hold your urine for long periods, this allows the bacteria to grow. Do not go without urinating for more than 3 to 4 hours.

Pee after sex: This will flush out the bacteria from the urethra, which may have entered during sex. Also, drink a glass of water to help flush bacteria.

Maintain hygiene: Clean the outer lips of your genitals and the anus with only water every day.

Avoid feminine products: Avoid using deodorant sprays, washes, powders in the genital area; it can irritate the urethra.

Change birth control: Do not use birth control methods such as unlubricated or spermicide-treated condoms, diaphragms, etc. Talk to your doctor or nurse about alternative birth control methods.

Prefer showers: Do not take long baths, limit to 30 minutes or less. Prefer showers over baths.

Use cotton underwear: Do not wear underwear that traps moisture and fits tightly. Change out of wet workout clothes, and bathing suits immediately. Wear loose-fitting, cotton underwear to keep your genital area dry.

  1. Urinary tract infection (UTI). Mayo Clinic. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  2. Urinary Tract Infections. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  3. Urinary tract infection in women – self-care. Medline Plus. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  4. What is a Urinary Tract (UTI) in Adults? Urology Care Foundation. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  5. Urinary Tract Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  6. Urinary Tract Infection in Women. Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medial School. Accessed on 25th September 2020.
  7. Urinary tract infections. Office on Women’s Health. Accessed on 25th September 2020.

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