A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of your urinary system. In most cases, infections happen in the lower urinary tract — the bladder and the urethra. 

Know Your Urinary Tract

The main function of your urinary tract is to make and store urine, one of the body's liquid waste products.

Your urinary tract comprises of:

  • Kidneys: These small organs are located on the back of your body, just above the hips, that function as filters. Your kidneys remove waste and water from your blood. This waste becomes urine and is passed out through the urethra.
  • Ureters: These are two tubes, on either side, that carry urine from the kidneys to your bladder.
  • Bladder: The bladder, also known as the urinary bladder, is a muscular sac-like container, that stores your urine before it leaves the body.  
  • Urethra: This thin, muscular tube carries the urine from your bladder to the outside of the body during urination.

A urinary tract infection can involve the bladder (condition is known as cystitis) or the kidneys (a condition known as pyelonephritis). Pyelonephritis is a more serious infection than cystitis but thankfully it is less common. 

While UTI is common in all, women of reproductive age group (15 - 45 years) are the most susceptible to UTI. Experts suggest that every 1 in 2 women is likely to have repeated UTI infections, while about 1 in 10 men will get a UTI once in their lifetime.

Causes and Symptoms of UTI

Know that your normal urine has no bacteria in it, and the one-way flow helps prevent infections. However, bacteria may enter your urethra and travel up into the bladder, resulting in infections. They may also travel up to the kidney. But no matter how far they go, bacteria in your urinary tract is bound to cause problems.

The two most common causes of UTI are being a female and sexual intercourse (the physical sexual contact between individuals that involves the penetration of the male reproductive organ into the female reproductive organ). Women have shorter urethras than men. This makes it easier for bacteria to get to their bladders. Having sex can introduce bacteria into your urinary tract, too. 

Cystitis and pyelonephritis can both result in UTI. Cystitis is the inflammation of your bladder and when this infection travels up to your kidney through the ureter and affects your kidneys, it is known as pyelonephritis.

The symptoms of cystitis include frequent urination, burning sensation while passing urine, lower abdominal or pelvic (the lower part of the trunk of your body) pain. In pyelonephritis, there is a high temperature with chills, vomiting, and pain over the abdominal flanks (the areas around the sides of your body from your upper abdomen to your back) is present.  

Other symptoms of a UTI depend on what part of the urinary tract is infected. The most common ones include:

  • Burning sensation or pain while urinating (dysuria).

  • Needing to urinate frequently during the night (nocturia).

  • Needing to urinate suddenly or more urgently than usual.

  • Feeling the urge to urinate more often.

  • Passing blood in your urine.

Diagnosis and Treatment of UTI

Your doctor will conduct a urine test to check for the presence of bacteria in your urine. If your doctor suspects a problem in your urinary tract, an ultrasound, a CT (Computer Tomography) scan, or an MRI (Magnetic Resource Imaging) scan might be done to take a closer look. 

Antibiotics are the most common treatment for urinary tract infections. Your doctor may suggest simple tips to help prevent UTIs.

Preventive Tips for Urinary Tract Infection

A few common tips for both men and women to follow to prevent UTIs are:

1. Follow proper toilet hygiene.

A 'front to back' method of cleaning up after passing stools will avoid the bacteria from the rectum getting access to your bladder. It would be prudent not to use toilet paper twice. 

The rectum is the lower part of your large intestine where your body stores stool. 

2. Don't suppress your urge to urinate.

The longer urine lies stagnant in your bladder, the better it is for bacterial growth. On the other hand, passing urine, every few minutes is also impractical. A golden rule is to not suppress the urge to pass urine. Urinating once every 2-3 hours during the day should be a reasonable frequency.

3. Urinate after sexual intercourse.

Sexual intercourse has the potential to provide bacteria access to your urinary system. Voiding (discharge or drain away) or urinating immediately after intercourse helps 'flush out' the germs that might have gained access. This tip is especially important for women to remember and follow.

4. Control blood sugars if you are diabetic.

Diabetes is a chronic condition in which there are abnormally high levels of sugar (glucose) in your blood and people who suffer from diabetes are often known as diabetics. 

Diabetics are one of the groups worst affected by UTIs. The infections can be severe and sometimes life-threatening in this particular group. Uncontrolled blood sugar levels over long periods increase the risk of such infections. Meticulous attention to good blood sugar control should decrease the risk significantly.

5. Drink plenty of fluids. 

It is recommended to drink approximately 2-3 liters of water per day to keep well hydrated. Drinking water helps dilute your urine and ensures that you'll urinate more frequently — allowing bacteria to be flushed from your urinary tract before an infection can begin.

Certain tips that women must exclusively follow to prevent UTIs are:

1. Get screened during pregnancy.

Harmful bacteria may be present in the urinary tract without causing any symptoms during pregnancy. It is a routine practice to screen for bacteria in urine in early pregnancy. 

A course of antibiotics prescribed by an obstetrician (a doctor who specializes in pregnancy, childbirth, and a woman's reproductive system) should generally eradicate the bacteria. This will help in preventing more serious infections later in the pregnancy.

2. Women should prefer sanitary napkins over tampons. 

A sanitary napkin, or a sanitary towel, sanitary pad, or pad is an absorbent item worn inside a women’s underwear during menstruation to absorb the bleeding. Tampons are a menstrual product designed to absorb blood and vaginal secretions by insertion into a woman’s vagina (muscular part of the female genital tract) during menstruation. 

Tampons might be more friendly towards the infection-causing bacteria than sanitary napkins. If one has to use tampons, then remove them before urinating.

3. Women must wear loose garments.

A woman’s vagina consists of huge amounts of healthy bacteria that are responsible for keeping it lubricated and protecting it from infections caused by foreign substances like harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites. 

Tight-fitting clothes, undergarments made of non-breathable fabrics promote bacterial growth by increasing moisture in the area. It is best for women to avoid them and choose cotton underpants as they are made of the most breathable and soft material.

4. Women should reconsider contraception.

Birth control, also called contraception, are devices or medications taken by women to prevent pregnancy. Some contraceptive methods like diaphragms and spermicidal jellies increase the likelihood of contracting a UTI. It is advisable for women to discuss the pros and cons with their doctor before using one of these contraception methods.

5. Post-menopausal women should consider the need for estrogen creams.

Menopause is the natural cessation of a woman’s menstrual cycle, which marks the end of her fertility. Usually, women experience menopause between 45 and 55 years of age. 

As menopause nears, the ovaries (primary female reproductive organ) of a woman make less of a hormone called estrogen. Estrogen is responsible for regulating a woman’s overall health and any imbalance or a lack of estrogen can have detrimental effects on a woman’s health.

A lack of estrogen can lead to a dry vagina and increase the risk of UTIs in women. Consulting a gynaecologist for using estrogen creams can help post-menopausal women prevent UTIs. 

6. Cranberry juice is probably helpful. 

Cranberry juice contains chemicals called proanthocyanidins which decrease the stickiness of bacteria to the bladder wall. While not conclusively proven, cranberry juice probably helps prevent UTI in young women.

In spite of the above measures, sometimes one may get a UTI occasionally. Recognize the symptoms and see your doctor immediately. You will probably need a short course of antibiotics followed by a reinforcement of the preventive measures!

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.