Saint Xavier University Chicago Campus

Common Illnesses

Urinary Tract Infection

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

A bacterial urinary tract infection (UTI) is the most common kind of infection affecting the urinary tract. Urine is the fluid that is filtered out of the bloodstream by the kidneys. Urine contains salts and waste products, but it doesn't normally contain bacteria. When bacteria get into the bladder or kidney and multiply in the urine, a UTI can result.

There are three main types of UTI:

  1. Bacteria that infect only the urethra (the short tube that delivers urine from the bladder to the outside of the body) cause urethritis.
  2. Bacteria can also cause a bladder infection, which is called cystitis.
  3. Another, more serious, kind of UTI is infection of the kidney itself, known aspyelonephritis. With this type of UTI, a person often has back pain, high fever, and vomiting.

The most common type of UTI, the bladder infection, causes mostly just discomfort and inconvenience. Bladder infections can be quickly and easily treated. And it's important to get treatment promptly to avoid the more serious infection that reaches the kidneys.

Bacteria Are to Blame

UTIs are usually caused by E. coli, bacteria that are normally found in the digestive tract and on the skin around the rectal and vaginal areas. When the bacteria enter the urethra, they can make their way up into the bladder and cause an infection.

Women get urinary tract infections much more frequently than men, most likely due to differences in the shape and length of the urethra. Women have shorter urethras than men, and the opening lies closer to the rectum and vagina where bacteria are likely to be.

Bacteria can get into the urethra several ways. During sexual intercourse, the bacteria in the vaginal area may be pushed into the urethra and eventually end up in the bladder, where urine provides a good environment for the bacteria to grow. This is the reason why women who are sexually active often get UTIs (UTIs arenot contagious, so you can't catch a urinary tract infection from someone else). Bacteria may also be introduced into a woman's bladder by wiping from back to front after a bowel movement, which can contaminate the urethral opening. The use of spermicides (including condoms treated with spermicide) and diaphragms as contraceptives may also increase the risk of getting a urinary tract infection.

Sexually transmitted diseases may cause UTI-like symptoms, such as pain with urination. This is due to the inflammation and irritation of the urethra or vagina that's sometimes associated with chlamydia and other STDs. If untreated, STDs may lead to serious long-term problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Unlike UTIs, STDs are contagious.

Symptoms of UTIs

A number of symptoms are associated with bladder infections, including:

A kidney infection may involve more serious symptoms, including:

If you have any symptoms of a urinary tract infection, call the Health Center or your primary care provider immediately. The most important thing is to take action as soon as possible.

Battling the Bacteria

Only your primary care provider can treat urinary tract infections. The first thing he/she will do is confirm a UTI by taking a clean-catch urine specimen. You'll be asked to clean your genital area with disposable wipes and then urinate into a sterile (bacteria-free) cup.

If an infection is suspected when the specimen is examined, your provider will probably prescribe antibiotics. Because there are many different antibiotics available, he/she may send the urine specimen for a urine culture to identify the exact type of bacteria causing your infection. It takes about 48 hours to get results, and he/she may ask you to switch antibiotics depending on the results.

It's important to drink lots of water during and after treatment because each time you urinate, the bladder cleanses itself a little bit more. Cranberry juice may also be helpful. People with UTIs should avoid coffee and spicy foods. And while it's always a good idea to quit smoking, this is especially true for people who have a UTI or are prone to getting UTIs because smoking is linked to bladder problems.

Someone who is treated for a UTI right away should be clear of symptoms within a week. For a more serious kidney infection, most people have to return to the doctor's office for a follow-up visit to ensure that the infection has responded completely to the medication.

Preventing UTIs

Here are some ways to avoid urinary tract infections. After urination, women should wipe from front to back with toilet paper. After bowel movements, both men and women should be sure to wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria from the rectal area to the urethra.

Another thing both women and men can do to prevent UTIs is to go to the bathroom frequently. Avoid holding urine for long periods of time. Drinking lots of water each day keeps the bladder active and bacteria free.

Women and men should also keep the genital area clean and dry. Women should change their tampons and pad regularly during their periods. Frequent bubble baths can cause irritation of the vaginal area, so women should take showers or plain baths. People should also avoid prolonged exposure to moisture in the genital area by not wearing nylon underwear or wet swimsuits. Wearing cotton underwear is also helpful. And women should skip using feminine hygiene sprays or douches — these products can irritate the urethra.

Remember that although urinary tract infections are uncomfortable and often painful, they are very common and easily treated. The sooner you contact your doctor, the sooner you'll be able to get rid of the problem.