Urinary tract infections (UTIs) happen when microbes such as bacteria overcome the body’s defenses in the urinary system. They can cause discomfort and urination problems, but medication and home remedies can often resolve them.
UTIs are one of the most commonTrusted Source types of outpatient infections in the United States, leading to more than 8.1 million visits to the doctor every year.
The urinary tract consists of the upper and lower urinary tract. The kidneys and ureters make up the upper urinary tract, and the urethra and bladder make up the lower urinary tract.
UTIs have different names depending on where they occur. For example:
- A bladder infection is called cystitis.
- A urethra infection is known as urethritis.
- A kidney infection is called pyelonephritis.
What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?
A UTI is a bacterial infection of the urinary tract that can affect:
- the bladder
- the kidneys
- the urethra
A UTI is classified as “simple” or “complicated.” Simple UTIs will usually only affect the bladder. Complicated UTIs describe resistant infections that require stronger medications, or those that affect the kidneys.
According to 2022 research, groups at a higher risk of complicated UTIs include:
- pregnant people
- immunocompromised people
- older people
- those using catheters
- those having radiotherapy treatment
Additionally, blockages and problems with kidney function can increase a person’s risk of developing a complicated UTI.
Overall, females are more likely to develop a UTI than males, with 40–60% of females developing an infection at least once in their life and 10% of females developing a UTI once a year. Females are at a higher risk than males because their urethra is shorter, which makes it easier for bacteria to enter the bladder.
Lower UTIs affect the bladder or urethra and can cause:
- a frequent need to urinate
- pain, discomfort, or burning sensation when urinating
- a sudden urge to urinate
- cloudy, strong-smelling urine that may contain blood
- the sensation that the bladder is not fully empty
- feeling unwell, tired, and achy
Upper UTIs affect the kidneys and ureters. As well as the symptoms above, they can cause:
- a fever of 100.4 ºF (38 ºC) or higher
- pain in the back and sides
- chills and shivering
- nausea and vomiting
Males and females share the same symptoms. However, 2021 research suggests that males had a higher chance of experiencing symptoms that affect the lower urinary tract.
It is worth noting that this study involved 1,256 people from a single community in Japan, so the findings may not apply to other populations.
Additional symptoms in children include:
- a high temperature
- appearing generally unwell — for example, babies may appear irritable and not feed well
- wetting the bed or themselves
In older adults or those with a catheter
Additional symptoms of UTIs in older adult or those with a urinary catheter include:
- wetting themselves
- new shivering
- new shaking
The one of the renowned research foundation notes that different bacteria live on the skin or around the rectum and vagina. When the bacteria enter the urethra, they can travel to the bladder.
The body usually flushes out the bacteria before they reach a person’s bladder. However, in some cases, the body is unable to do so, resulting in a UTI.
UTIs most commonly occur due to the following bacteria:
- Escherichia coli
- Protus mirabilis
- Enterococcus faecalis
- Staphylococcus saprophyticus
- Klebsiella pneumoniae
People of any age and sex can develop a UTI. However, some people are more at risk than others.
The following factors can increase the likelihood of developing a UTI:
- being sexually active
- having difficulty fully emptying the bladder
- having a condition that causes a blockage in the urinary tract, such as kidney stones
- having diabetes
- having recently used a catheter
- having had a previous UTI
- having vesicoureteral reflux, a condition that causes the urine to flow backward from the bladder and up toward the kidneys
- having poor hygiene
The NIDDK notes that females are more likely to develop UTIs than males. This is because females have a shorter urethra, meaning the bacteria have less distance to travel to the bladder.
Additionally, the urethra is closer to the rectum, where the UTI-causing bacteria are present.
Going through menopause and using birth control methods, such as diaphragms or spermicide, can also increase the chance of developing a UTI.
Is pregnancy a risk factor for a UTI?
Changes in the body during pregnancy can cause changes in the urinary tract.
Males share the same risk factors for developing a UTI. However, having an enlarged prostate is a male-specific risk factor.
An enlarged prostate can block or obstruct the usual flow of urine.
In some cases, lower UTIs can lead to pyelonephritis. This is a sudden and severe kidney infection.
- flank pain
- burning urination
- increased frequency and urgency to urinate
- mental changes
If a person suspects they have a kidney infection, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Recurrent or long-lasting kidney infections can cause permanent damage. Some sudden kidney infections can be life threatening, particularly if bacteria enter the bloodstream in a condition known as septicemia.
They can also increase the risk of pregnant people delivering infants prematurely or with low birth weight.
There are several measures that an individual can take to reduce the risk of developing a UTI, including:
- drinking 6–8, 8-ounce glasses of water per day
- emptying the bladder fully when urinating
- urinating after sexual intercourse
- wearing loose-fitting clothing and cotton underwear
- keeping the genital area clean
- avoiding the use of perfumed products on the genitals
Females should also wipe from the front to the back to help avoid spreading the germs from the rectum to the vagina. In addition, if a person experiences frequent or recurring UTIs, they should talk with a doctor about switching birth control methods if they use it.
Individuals should contact a doctor if they develop UTI symptoms, especially if they have developed symptoms of a potential kidney infection.
A doctor will usually diagnose a UTI after asking about a person’s symptoms and testing a urine sample to assess the presence of white blood cells, red blood cells, and bacteria.
In some cases, a doctor may culture the urine to identify the type of bacteria causing the infection.
If someone has recurrent UTIs, a doctor may request further diagnostic testing to determine if anatomical or functional issues are the cause. Such tests may include:
- Diagnostic imaging: This involves assessing the urinary tract using ultrasound, CT and MRI scanning, radiation tracking, or X-rays.
- Urodynamics: This procedure determines how well the urinary tract stores and releases urine.
- Cystoscopy: This allows the doctor to see inside the bladder and urethra with a camera lens inserted through the urethra via a long thin tube.
A healthcare professional can prescribe antibiotics to treat UTIs, regardless of a person’s sex.
The type of medication and length of treatment will depend on a person’s symptoms and medical history.
People should always complete the full course of treatment to make sure that the infection is fully clear and reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance. UTI symptoms can disappear before the infection has completely gone.
To cure a UTI that has occurred due to problems within the urinary system, a healthcare professional will need to diagnose the underlying issue.
If the person is seriously ill, they may need to be admitted to a hospital to ensure they consume sufficient fluids and receive the correct medication.
People may also need to go to the hospital if they are:
- pregnant and are otherwise ill
- an older adult
- have cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, or other medical problems
- have kidney stones or other changes in their urinary tract
- recovering from recent urinary tract surgery
To help treat and prevent recurrent UTI infections, a healthcare professional may:
- suggest changing birth control methods
- prescribe a single daily dose of antibiotics for 6–12 months
- prescribe a single dose of antibiotics to take each time a person has sexual intercourse
There are several suggested remedies that people with a UTI can try at home. These include:
- Staying hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids, with water being the best option, can help flush bacteria from the body.
- Urinating frequently: Urinating as soon as a person feels they need to can help prevent and treat a UTI.
- Probiotics: Researchers have not definitively concluded whether probiotics are an effective treatment for UTIs. However, Lactobacillus probiotics may improve vaginal health by producing antibacterial hydrogen peroxide, lowering the pH of urine so bacteria cannot easily grow, and preventing bacteria from attaching to urinary tract cells.
- Heat therapy: A person can apply a hot water bottle or warm cloth to their abdomen or back to manage any pain from a bladder or kidney infection.
We found that other successful home remedies to help stop recurrent UTIs included:
- washing hands before and after touching the genitals
- avoiding spermicides
- wiping from front to back to reduce the spread of bacteria from the rectum to the vagina
- using vaginal estrogens, if appropriate
When to contact a doctor
A person should contact a doctor if they develop symptoms of a UTI. Without treatment, UTIs can lead to a sudden and severe kidney infection which can be life threatening.
We advice people to seek care immediately if they develop:
- severe pain in the back near the ribs or lower abdomen