Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are very common, especially in women. In fact, half of all women in the UK will have at least one UTI during their lifetime, compared to only 1 out of 2000 men.
Children can also get UTIs, although this is also not as common.
The symptoms are often painful and uncomfortable, but most people recover within a few days with the help of lifestyle and diet changes.
What is a Urinary Tract Infection?
The urinary tract is made up of the kidneys, the ureters and the urethra. The kidneys produce urine, which then travels through the ureters to the bladder and eventually leaves the body via the urethra. If bacteria enter the urinary tract through the urethra it can cause an infection.
It is thought that women are more prone to UTIs because their urethra is much shorter than men’s, and so bacteria have a much shorter distance to travel. The most common bacterial strain that causes UTIs is E. coli, which easily passes from the back passage to the urethra.
Upper and Lower Urinary Tract Infections
A lower urinary tract infection affects the bladder and/or urethra and is often called cystitis (when the bladder is affected) or urethritis (when the urethra is affected). Upper UTIs (also known as pyelonephritis) affect the kidneys and ureters, and can be more serious – they can develop as a secondary infection as the infection spreads up the urinary tract, and can lead to kidney damage if left untreated.
Symptoms of Urinary Tract Infections
The following symptoms are indicative of a lower urinary tract infection of the bladder or urethra:
- A burning or stinging sensation during urination
- A frequent or intense urge to urinate, even though hardly any comes out when visiting the bathroom
- Pain or pressure in the lower back or abdomen
- Cloudy, weird-smelling or dark coloured urine, or visible blood in the urine
- Feeling tired and shaky.
If the infection has taken hold and spread up the urinary tract the following symptoms may also appear. These are more serious and require medical attention:
- High temperatures and fever
- Moderate to severe pain in the sides, back or groin
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Suddenly worsening symptoms
- Uncontrollable shivering.
Causes of Urinary Tract Infections
As mentioned above, UTIs are caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract. There are many things that can cause this to happen, including:
- Sexual intercourse: In young women, sex is the most common cause of UTIs, accounting for 75% to 90% of bladder infections. This is because sex can irritate the urethra and introduce bacteria into the urinary tract. Using a diaphragm as birth control can also increase the risk of a UTI as they can put pressure on the bladder.
- Bad hygiene practices: Can lead to the introduction of bacteria to the urethra, such as wearing ‘thong’ style underwear, not bathing enough, using scented feminine hygiene sprays or bath products, or wiping ‘back to front’ after going to the toilet.
- Urinary catheters: Commonly used in hospitals, these can lead to UTIs as the catheter (which goes into the bladder through the urethra and stays in the body continuously) can allow bacteria to enter the body, and lead to higher levels of bacteria in the bladder than usual.
- Enlarged prostate gland: Although men are generally less likely to develop a UTI, having an enlarged prostate can put pressure on the bladder and urethra, and prevent the bladder from emptying properly, thus increasing the risk of infection.
- Restricted urinary flow: caused by kidney stones, a stroke or spinal cord injury can increase the risk of developing a UTI, as they can affect the flow of urine or cause a blockage the urinary tract.
- A weakened immune system caused by conditions such as HIV and diabetes can also increase the risk of UTIs, as the body is less able to fight the bacteria by itself. Immunosuppressant medications such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer can also increase the risk for the same reason.
Complications of Urinary Tract Infections
Most people who get UTIs find the infection improves after a couple of days or is treated easily with a short course of antibiotics. The symptoms can be uncomfortable and painful, and the increased frequent need to urinate can lead to absences from work or school.
Women who suffer from chronic UTIs (more than 3 to 4 per year) may need to be referred to a urologist or take low dose antibiotics over prolonged periods to prevent repeat infections. Men who often experience UTIs are at risk of developing prostatitis, which is inflammation of the prostate gland.
Complications of UTIs can affect people with a pre-existing health condition such as diabetes or a weakened immune system, and in some cases, the infection can spread to the kidneys, which can result in kidney damage if left untreated. In extreme cases, a kidney infection can cause kidney failure in those with pre-existing kidney problems.
Treatments for Urinary Tract Infection
If you are concerned about a urinary tract infection, first visit your doctor to for a proper diagnosis and rule out other possible causes. A short course of antibiotics is usually all it takes to get rid of a urinary tract infection, however, if you have several similar infections (more than 4 or 5 in a year) tell your doctor as there may be other underlying conditions causing the infections.
How to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections
There are simple lifestyle and hygiene steps that can help to prevent infections from being introduced to or taking hold in the urethra and bladder. These include:
- Wash regularly: Personal hygiene is important, especially if you are prone to these infections, so wash your whole body every day including the genital area. Make sure to wear clean underwear every day as well, and after visiting the toilet wipe from ‘front to back’ to avoid introducing any bacteria from the back passage into the urethra.
- Go to the bathroom after sex: Sexual activity can push bacteria deeper into the urethra of both men and women. Urinating after sex flushes bacteria out of the urinary tract, so it can’t settle and cause an infection.
- Drink plenty of water: Keeping well hydrated can reduce your chances of getting a UTI, and if you already have one, it can help to prevent fever and dehydration. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks, as these can irritate the bladder and can act as a diuretic, making you more dehydrated.
- Wear loose fitting clothing made from natural fabrics: Moisture is a breeding ground for bacteria – so wearing tight clothing in man-made fabrics that don’t let your skin breathe can make things worse. Go for cotton underwear and looser clothes to promote air circulation and inhibit the growth of bacteria.
- Treat constipation promptly: Constipation increases the risk of infection, so if you suffer from constipation, try to increase the amount of fibre in your diet, drink plenty of water, and eat plenty of green vegetables. Using a mild laxative on a short-term basis may be appropriate on occasion, but visit a doctor if you frequently suffer from constipation.
- Avoid certain contraceptions which increase the risk of UTIs: A diaphragm increases pressure on the bladder, while spermicidal lubricant on condoms can cause irritation. Choose a different method of contraception that is suitable for you.
- Take over the counter painkillers: Paracetamol can help to relieve pain while anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can also be helpful.
- Use a hot water bottle or heating pad: Place them over your bladder to help ease pain and relax the muscles.
Natural Remedies for Urinary Tract Infections
With the growing resistance to antibiotics and risk of adverse reactions, many people opt for natural remedies to help prevent urinary tract infections, many of which can be found in your own fridge.
Cranberries are one of the most popular remedies for UTIs. This is thought to be due to the cranberry juice changing the pH of urine, making it too acidic for bacteria to take hold.
Others suggest that it contains flavonol compounds that stop the harmful bacteria from sticking to cells that line the bladder. Either way, a large study found UTIs were 38% less prevalent in people who often consumed cranberry products. Drinking the juice may relieve the symptoms, and taking a high-strength cranberry supplement every day could reduce your chances of developing a UTI.
Vitamin C increases the acidity of your urine, which creates a hostile environment in the urinary tract for bacteria and slows its growth. It is best to take high doses of vitamin C in supplement form because drinking large quantities of citrus fruit juice can cause painful urination.
Probiotics help to keep harmful bacteria which cause infections at bay and strengthen the immune system. Eating yoghurt on a daily basis can help to increase the amount of good bacteria in the digestive tract, while probiotic supplements can also be beneficial. Probiotics are even more important if you are taking antibiotics because antibiotics kill off the good bacteria alongside the bad.