Urinary tract infections are painful, annoying infections of the urinary tract, which includes the bladder, ureters, urethra and kidneys. More than half of women will experience at least one UTI in her lifetime. Although common, many of us still have questions, sometimes embarrassing ones, about urinary health and UTIs.
What are Urinary Tract Infections?
A UTI is an infection of any part of the urinary tract. They happen most commonly in women because women have a shorter urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder) than men. Bacteria, most commonly E. coli, get inside the bladder or urinary tract and cause inflammation.
What Are Symptoms of a UTI?
Pain or burning when you pee is the most common sign. You may also have:
- More urgency or frequency of urination
- Blood in the urine
- Pressure in your lower abdomen
- Signs of an infection like fever or chills
A UTI can also make your urine smell bad or look cloudy; however, many other factors can lead to smelly urine. Susan Palmer, PA, a urology physician assistant at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, cautions people that smelly urine without other symptoms is probably caused by food or drink rather than a UTI.
What Causes a UTI?
UTIs are caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract and certain things can increase your risk of getting an infection:
- Having sex more than three times a week
- Multiple partners or a new partner
- Perimenopause or menopause
- Use of a diaphragm or spermicides
- Catheter use (for men and women)
- Holding your bladder for long periods throughout the day
Many women wonder about other causes of UTIs, as well. You may raise your risk of getting a UTI by working out without underwear or laying out in a wet bathing suit; however, it’s not nearly as likely as other causes. Wearing anything that holds moisture near your genitals can trap bacteria, which raises your risk of bacterial infections and yeast infections.
Can Men Get UTIs?
It is rare for men to get a UTI. Palmer said catheter use is the most common reason for UTIs, and that can lead to infections in men. However, without catheter use, men who have a UTI should see a urologist for further evaluation.
When Should I See a Doctor?
You should see a doctor if you have any symptoms of a UTI. The sooner you get treatment, the better. If you continue to have UTIs more than three times per year, you should ask for a referral to see a urologist for further evaluation, Palmer recommends.
How are UTIs Diagnosed and Treated?
Your doctor will test your urine to diagnose a UTI. The urine test looks for the type of bacteria causing your infection, which allows your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic that targets that specific bacteria. It takes about two days for the results to come in, and you and your doctor can discuss whether you want to begin antibiotics before the results come back.
“If you put off treatment for a UTI, you can get sicker and sicker,” Palmer said. “It’s best not to wait more than a few days of [having] symptoms before seeing a doctor.”
Most people begin to feel better within a day or two of starting antibiotics.
Am I Prone to UTIs If I’ve Had Them Before?
About four in 10 women who have one UTI will get another within six months, according to womenshealth.gov. You may have more than one UTI in your lifetime, but having more than three in a year signals a problem. It is best to be evaluated by a urologist rather than continuing to call your primary care provider for antibiotics every few months.
How Can I Prevent a UTI?
You may not be able to prevent all UTIs, but you can take some steps to improve your urinary health:
- Pee when you need to throughout the day (including after sex for women)
- Wipe from front to back
- Do not douche
- Drink plenty of water
- Talk to your doctor about birth control options other than spermicides
It was once thought that cranberry juice helped guard against UTIs or lessen symptoms, but Palmer said the evidence she’s seeing doesn’t support that. Cranberry juice won’t harm you, but it probably won’t prevent infections.
Palmer encourages anyone with a UTI to see their primary care physician first and to have urine testing. An urgent care center can diagnose a UTI, but the doctors there won’t have your medical history and may not always perform a urine test.
“Your primary care office has your comprehensive medical history and medication history,” she said. “Ensure that you have urine testing to receive the best, most appropriate treatment.”