Consider the urinary tract—it’s one of the body’s amazing systems you never think much about until it’s not working properly. But when something goes wrong, the symptoms of a urinary tract infection can be quite uncomfortable and cause serious concerns.
Understanding the anatomy
Your urinary system is comprised of your kidneys, ureters (tubes linking the kidneys to the bladder), bladder, and urethra (tube that dispels urine from the female bladder; semen and urine from males). When any component of that system becomes infected with a pathogen (most often, E. coli), the result is a UTI. And while most will clear up without much attention, if the infection reaches the kidneys, it can be quite severe.
The most common adult UTI is a bladder infection. Signs you might have one include painful, burning, or frequent urination; feeling as though you need to urinate when you can’t; lower abdominal pain; and/or cloudy or bloody urine that may have an odor. If your symptoms aren’t painful and then they’re ignored, the infection might travel through the ureters and into your kidneys. Symptoms of a kidney infection can include lower back pain (on either side or both), fever, nausea, and/or vomiting.
Getting a proper diagnosis
See your doctor, discuss your symptoms, and then you’ll need to provide a sample for a urinalysis—a test to detect infection (white blood cells) or bleeding (red blood cells) in the urine. “We can get results back in about five minutes,” says Marco Coppola, D.O., FACEP, chief medical officer of Family ER.
“Blood in the urine can also signal a kidney stone, which can present with a bladder infection,” Dr. Coppola says. “Or blood can be a sign the infection is causing the lining of the bladder or ureter to bleed.” Treatment is usually as simple as completing a round of oral antibiotics. “In conjunction with an antibiotic, I’ll typically prescribe a urinary antispasmodic medication (for pain relief) and anti-nausea medication to ensure patients keep their meds and fluids down.”
Lowering your risk
There are easy ways to keep your urinary tract healthy. Drinking fluids, particularly water, is a huge health benefit. Women who are more prone to UTIs should skip the bath and take a shower instead. You should also regularly empty your bladder; holding urine for extended periods of time is not healthy.
If you have frequent (several a year) UTIs, ask your doctor if you need to see a specialist. A urologist can determine if there’s an underlying medical or anatomical issue that’s the culprit.
Who is at greater risk for a UTI?
Blame it on anatomy, but women (due to a shorter urethra) are much more likely to experience a UTI than men, particularly while pregnant. Additionally, people within these populations are also more susceptible:
- People with medical conditions that prevent them from emptying their bladders, e.g. those with spinal cord injuries, kidney stones, or suppressed immune systems
- Diabetic patients
- Women who are sexually active and those who use a diaphragm for birth control; urinating after sex can help flush out bacteria
- Men with an enlarged prostate
- Children with poor bathroom hygiene and diaper-wearing babies since E. coli bacteria from feces is the most common culprit for causing a UTI
- Patients hospitalized (or in nursing homes) who are catheterized for extended periods of time
By Pamela Hammonds