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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 gets into the urethra or bladder and multiplies in the urine, a UTI can result.

There are three main types of UTI:

  1. Bacteria that infects 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 an infection of the kidney itself, known as pyelonephritis. With this type of UTI, a person often has back pain, high fever and vomiting. They may need to be treated in the emergency room with intravenous antibiotics.

Bacteria Are to Blame

UTIs are often 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. 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.

Symptoms of UTIs

A number of symptoms are associated with UTIs, including:

  • frequent urination
  • burning or pain during urination
  • the feeling of having to urinate even though little or no urine actually comes out
  • pain in the lower abdomen
  • pain above the pubic bone (in women)
  • a full feeling in the rectum (in men)
  • bloody or foul-smelling urine
  • mild fever
  • a general feeling of shakiness and fatigue

A kidney infection may involve more serious symptoms, including:

  • high fever
  • chills
  • nausea and vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • cloudy or bloody urine
  • pain in the back, just above the waist

If you have any symptoms of a urinary tract infection, visit a health care provider. Prompt treatment of UTI symptoms can prevent the bacteria from traveling up to the kidney and causing severe infection.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Your healthcare provider can diagnose a UTI based on symptoms and a urine specimen. Usually your urine will be tested in the clinic for signs of infection, and may also be sent to a lab for a culture. The lab can determine if there is bacteria present and what antibiotics will be affective against the bacteria.

UTIs are treated with antibiotics. Make sure to complete the full course of the prescribed antibiotics so that the infection is adequately treated. If you do not have relief of symptoms after three days on the antibiotics, let your healthcare provider know. You may need to be placed on another antibiotic.


  • 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.
  • Avoid holding urine for long periods of time.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (especially water).
  • Women should change their tampons and pad regularly during their periods.
  • Avoid frequent bubble baths as these can cause irritation.
  • Avoid prolonged exposure to moisture in the genital area by not wearing nylon underwear or wet swimsuits.

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