Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are the second most common type of infection diagnosed today. (1) While they’re easy to treat with antibiotics, they can still cause a lot of pain and irritation if not caught — and treated — early.
A UTI (also known as a bladder infection) is a common condition that occurs when bacteria migrate into the usually sterile urinary tract and multiply. If you have a UTI, you’ll typically experience: a frequent urge to urinate, even after you’ve just emptied your bladder; a burning sensation during urination; pressure in your lower abdomen; and other symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
UTI symptoms can vary, and it's possible for someone who has a urinary tract infection to experience no symptoms. But for many people, UTI symptoms are uncomfortable and painful. Besides a strong, persistent urge to urinate, common symptoms include:
- Pain or burning during urination
- Passing only small amounts of urine
- Cloudy, strong-smelling urine
- Red or pink-tinged urine, indicating the presence of blood
- Mucus- or pus-like urethral discharge, usually in men
When a urinary tract infection moves to the kidneys, symptoms such as fever, shaking, chills, and pain in the upper back, side, or groin may occur.
Urinary Tract Infections in Men
Women are usually the ones plagued with irritating urinary tract infection symptoms, but men can develop UTIs, too. In fact, the older a man is, the greater his risk for getting one.
RELATED: Urinary Tract Infections in Men: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Children and Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Symptoms in children are different from symptoms in adults. Urinary tract infections are quite common in children. While UTIs in very young children are often associated with an anatomic abnormality, for others the infection is related to introducing bacteria into the urinary tract. UTIs in children generally peak in infancy and then again between ages 2 and 4, coinciding with potty training.
In newborns, signs of urinary tract infection include poor feeding, lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, mild jaundice, and fever. For babies younger than 2, foul-smelling urine may also be a sign. For older children, the more classic UTI signs, such as urgency, incontinence, and pain while urinating occur. (2)
RELATED: Parents' Guide to UTIs in Children: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and More
Learn More About Urinary Tract Infection Signs and Symptoms
Causes and Risk Factors of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
UTIs are caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract, which consists of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. While any of these parts can become infected, most UTIs involve the lower urinary tract, which includes the bladder (where urine is stored) and the urethra (the tube through which urine passes out of the body). A UTI that infects the bladder is called cystitis; one that infects the urethra is called urethritis. (3)
The majority of UTIs that affect the bladder and the urethra are caused by E. coli or other bacteria that are normally found in the digestive tract, which can travel from the anus to the urethra. UTIs that affect the urethra are also caused by sexually transmitted infections, including herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and mycoplasma. Most of the time, urinating flushes out lingering bacteria in the urethra before it causes problems, though your body isn’t always able to do this. (4)
Less often, UTIs involve the upper urinary tract, which includes the kidneys (the organs that filter liquid waste from the blood and create urine) and the ureters (the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder). A UTI infection in the kidneys, called pyelonephritis or a kidney infection, most often begins in the bladder and moves up through the ureters to one or both kidneys. In certain cases, a kidney infection can lead to serious health problems. (5)
Risk Factors That Make You More Likely to Get a UTI
UTIs are much more common in women than men, and they're especially rare in young and middle-aged men. This is partly due to the female anatomy — women have shorter urethras, making it easier for bacteria to enter the bladder.
Having sex more frequently, and with new partners, can increase a person's risk of developing a UTI. A woman’s urethra is located next to both the vagina and anus, enabling bacteria to easily travel into the urinary tract during sexual intercourse. (6) (A UTI caused by frequent intercourse is sometimes dubbed honeymoon cystitis.)
Other factors that can increase the risk of a UTI include:
- Perimenopause and menopause
- A blocked urinary tract: kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, or benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) can trap urine in the bladder and increase the risk of UTIs
- Diabetes: This condition suppresses the immune system, increasing one's vulnerability to UTIs
- Catheter use
- Recent urinary surgery
- Wearing thong underwear
Getting a UTI While Pregnant May Be More Serious
One’s risk of developing a UTI increases during pregnancy, starting at week 6 through week 24, thanks to a number of factors, including hormonal changes that can make it easier for bacteria to travel into the urinary tract.
Urinary Tract Infections During Pregnancy: Symptoms, Treatment, and Common Questions
In addition, as the uterus grows throughout pregnancy, it can put pressure on the bladder, making it more difficult to empty completely. (7)
Pregnancy can also make a UTI more difficult to treat, which can have serious consequences, including pyelonephritis (when the infection moves to the kidneys); preterm labor; low birth weight; and sepsis.
A urinalysis and a urine culture are routinely performed at an initial prenatal visit to screen for UTIs, but if you're pregnant and suspect you may have an infection, seek medical attention quickly. (8)
Physical Changes Spur Urinary Tract Infections During Menopause
Frequent sexual intercourse is one of the biggest UTI risk factors for younger women. For menopausal women, however, physical changes such as the thinning of vaginal tissue, difficulty fully emptying the bladder, incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse are the main culprits. (Prolapse is when a pelvic organ, like the bladder, drops and pushes against the walls of the vagina.)
In addition, during menopause, the body produces less estrogen, a hormone that — among other functions — helps keep the bacteria levels in the lining of the bladder and urethra healthy. Vaginal estrogen creams may restore the normal bacterial balance of the vagina, thus helping to stave off recurrent UTIs. (9)
How Is Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) Diagnosed?
Call or see your general practitioner or an urgent care office as soon as you suspect a UTI. There, you will get a urinalysis, which involves screening a sample of urine for bacteria and blood cells.
In order to ensure a clean urine sample, a physician will likely have you clean your genital area with a special wipe beforehand, and ask that you do a midstream catch of the urine.
If a UTI is diagnosed, you’ll be treated with antibiotics. (10) It’s important to note that false negative results do occur and that almost all women who experience typical UTI symptoms and a negative urine culture actually do have a UTI. (11)
If you’ve had a prior UTI, your healthcare provider will look at prior cultures (presuming they were done) to see which bacteria were found, if any, and which antibiotics were used; this often guides therapy in recurrent UTIs.
Learn More About Diagnosing Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Prognosis of Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
Most UTIs can be taken care of with antibiotics. Some people have chronic UTIs, meaning the infection is recurrent. If this is the case, you may need a stronger course of antibiotics or you may need to take them for longer. (12) Severe UTIs may require hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics. (13)
Treatment and Medication Options for Urinary Tract Infections
UTIs are treated with antibiotics and sometimes additional medication for pain relief. While antibiotics are still considered the gold standard of UTI treatments, there are some home remedies you can use to help relieve symptoms as well.
Antibiotics are the first line of treatment for urinary tract infections. While most UTIs are considered simple or uncomplicated UTIs, the particulars regarding which antibiotics are prescribed — and for how long — depend on factors such as the type of bacteria detected in your urine and your current health.
If you've been treated for a UTI in the past, your doctor may recommend a different antibiotic the next time you get an infection. This is because some types of bacteria that cause UTIs have become resistant to certain antibiotics.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
8 Home Remedies for Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) Symptoms
In addition to antibiotics, many people seek natural, at-home remedies to help UTIs. A heating pad can relieve pressure and pain, and wearing loose cotton clothing is recommended. For those with recurrent UTIs, modifying certain habits may help: Choose fragrance-free personal care products to reduce the risk of irritation, and cut back on foods that can irritate the bladder — caffeine, alcohol, spicy food, raw onions, citrus fruits, carbonated drinks, and artificial sweeteners.
Learn More About Treatment for Urinary Tract Infections: Antibiotics, Medication, and Home Remedies
Prevention of Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of getting a UTI:
- Drink plenty of water and other liquids to help flush out bacteria.
- Urinate frequently, or about every two to three hours.
- For women: Wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement.
- Urinate before and soon after having sexual intercourse.
- Avoid synthetic underwear, tight pants, and lingering in wet gym clothes or a bathing suit. Though none of this can cause a UTI, these habits can increase the spread of bacteria.
- Avoid vaginal deodorants, douches, powders, and other potentially irritating feminine products.
- Use a method of birth control other than a diaphragm, spermicide, or unlubricated condoms.
For Those Who Experience Frequent UTIs, Managing Risk Factors May Help With Prevention
In some people, urinary tract infections come back again and again. Women, especially, are likely to have recurrent UTIs. While recurrences usually develop within three months of the original infection, having more than two within six months (or three or more within a year) is technically considered a recurrence.
Besides precautions and at-home strategies to help prevent UTIs, sometimes antibiotics are used as a preventive measure for those with frequent UTI recurrences.
Managing risk factors — by maintaining good hygiene, such as wiping from front to back for women and avoiding spermicides — can lower your likelihood of repeat UTIs.
Learn More About Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) Prevention
Complications of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Delayed treatment for UTIs can lead to complications. Most UTIs cause no lasting damage if they are treated quickly. But if left untreated, UTIs can lead to complications that include:
- Recurring infections
- Permanent kidney damage
- Narrowing of the urethra in men
- A potentially life-threatening infection called sepsis, especially when kidneys are infected (called urosepsis) (3)
Related Conditions and Causes of UTI
There are a number of health conditions that share some symptoms with urinary tract infections, including:
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
The following conditions may make you more susceptible to developing a UTI and increase the severity of symptoms:
Type 2 diabetes
And having a UTI can increase a man's risk for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH).
Resources We Love
Preventing, diagnosing, and properly treating urinary tract infections (UTIs) can be overwhelming. Here are some additional sources of information and support that can help.
Favorite Organizations for Essential UTI Info
Urology Care Foundation (UCF)
We love the patient-friendly foundation page of the American Urological Association website. Here, you’ll find lots of support and educational resources for those with urological issues. Our favorite part is that all your must-know info can come straight to your mailbox: UCF offers free subscriptions to its UrologyHealth Extra magazine.
This no-nonsense clearinghouse is run by the National Institutes of Health, and provides gobs of information on urinary tract infections from the National Library of Medicine. We especially like that you can easily find the latest published research on UTIs and that there’s a quick link to current clinical trials for those who are interested.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC is a trusted go-to source for the writers and editors of Everyday Health, thanks to their commitment to science-based research and reporting. What makes the CDC a particularly helpful resource for urinary tract infection information is the fact that their antibiotics and treatment guidelines for UTIs are always up-to-date.
Favorite Sites to Find Docs
Society of Women in Urology (SWIU)
SWIU is all about supporting women urologists and the urologic issues that impact women. (At present there are almost 1,000 members, including board-certified female urologists and researchers.) One of our favorite SWIU perks is their searchable database for prospective patients to find a local female urologist.
Urology Care Foundation (UCF)
An excellent source for overall urinary health info, UCF also offers a tool to help would-be patients find a urologist near them. You can search by zip code, distance, and through eight urinary specialties, including pediatric urology.
Favorite Site for Urinary Health Podcasts
Urology Care Podcast
Podcasts aren’t just for politics, laughs, and murder mysteries. The American Urological Association has a fantastic one called, aptly, the Urology Care Podcast, which covers topics like sexual health myths, UTIs, prostate cancer, and more. Currently there are more than 140 episodes to listen to, ranging from about 4 minutes to 28 minutes long.
Favorite Site for UTI Support
Live UTI Free
While there’s a lot of good stuff here (like the intake quiz that helps guide you through the site’s content), the best part of Live UTI Free is being able to read other women’s stories about recurrent urinary tract infections and ask them and fellow readers questions — and get honest, unfiltered answers.
Learn More About Additional Resources and Support for Urinary Tract Infections
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Urinary Tract Infections. MedlinePlus. August 8, 2016.
- Weinberg GA. Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Children. Merck Manual Professional Version. March 2020.
- Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). Mayo Clinic. January 30, 2019.
- Flores-Mireles AL, Walker JN, Caparon M, Hultgren SJ. Urinary Tract Infections: Epidemiology, Mechanisms of Infection and Treatment Options. Nature Reviews Microbiology. April 2015.
- Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis). National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (NIDDK)
- Minardi D, D’Anzeo G, Cantoro D, et al. Urinary Tract Infections in Women: Etiology and Treatment Options. International Journal of General Medicine. April 2011.
- Urinary Tract Infection During Pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association.
- Friel LA. Urinary Tract Infection in Pregnancy. Merck Manual Professional Version. April 2020.
- Ricciotti H. Not Again! — When UTIs Won’t Quit at Midlife. Harvard Health Publishing. September 25, 2015.
- Urinary Tract Infections. Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. April 27, 2018.
- Heytens S, De Sutter A, Coorevits L, et al. Women With Symptoms of a Urinary Tract Infection but a Negative Urine Culture: PCR-Based Quantification of Escherichia coli Suggests Infection in Most Cases. Clinical Microbiology and Infection. September 2017.
- Urinary Tract Infection in Adults. MedlinePlus. June 28, 2018.
- Urinary Tract Infection Diagnosis. Mayo Clinic. January 30, 2019.
- Urinary Tract Infections. National Kidney Foundation.
- Bladder Infection (UTI) in Adults. NIDDK.
- What Is a Urinary Tract Infection in Adults? Urology Care Foundation. April 2019.
- Detecting Urinary Tract Infections. HealthyChildren.org. November 21, 2015.
- Common Questions About Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections in Women. American Family Physician. April 1, 2016.