A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in the urinary tract. The urinary tract includes the kidneys, the bladder and the urethra. The kidneys are 2 bean-shaped organs that lie against the spine in the lower back. As blood flows through the kidneys, waste is removed and stored in the bladder as urine. The bladder is the balloon-like organ that stores the urine. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder and out of the body.
Possible signs of a urinary tract infection include the following:
Sometimes germs can grow in the urinary tract but you won't have any of these symptoms. This is called asymptomatic (pronounced: "a-simp-toe-mat-ik") bacteriuria. Your doctor can test to find out if you have this. Asymptomatic bacteriuria should be treated in pregnant women, but does not need to be treated in most other women.
In a child, symptoms may include any of the symptoms listed above and may also include the following:
UTIs are caused by bacteria (germs) that get into the urinary tract. The urinary tract includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Any part of your urinary tract can become infected, but bladder and urethra infections are the most common.
Women tend to get urinary tract infections more often than men because bacteria can reach the bladder more easily in women. The urethra (the opening to your urinary tract) is shorter in women than in men, so bacteria have a shorter distance to travel.
The urethra is located near the rectum in women. Bacteria from the rectum can easily travel up the urethra and cause infections. Bacteria from the rectum is more likely to get into the urethra if you wipe from back to front (instead of front to back) after a bowel movement. Be sure to teach children how to wipe correctly.
Having sex may also cause urinary tract infections in women because bacteria can be pushed into the urethra. Using a diaphragm can lead to infections because diaphragms push against the urethra and make it harder to completely empty the bladder. The urine that stays in the bladder is more likely to grow bacteria and cause infections.
Frequent urinary tract infections may be caused by changes in the bacteria in the vagina. Antibacterial vaginal douches, spermicides and certain oral antibiotics may cause changes in vaginal bacteria. Avoid using these items, if possible. Menopause can also cause changes in vaginal bacteria that increase your risk for urinary tract infection. Taking estrogen usually corrects this problem, but may not be for everyone.
Your doctor will usually be able to tell what's causing your pain by your description of your symptoms, along with a physical exam. Testing your urine (urinalysis) can also help your doctor identify what type of infection you have. Usually, a sample of your urine is taken in your doctor's office and sent to a lab to check for infection.
If you are a healthy adult man or a woman who is not pregnant, a few days of antibiotic pills will usually cure your urinary tract infection. If you are pregnant, your doctor will prescribe a medicine that is safe for you and the baby. Usually, symptoms of the infection go away 1 to 2 days after you start taking the medicine. It’s important that you follow your doctor’s instructions for taking the medicine, even if you start to feel better. Skipping pills could make the treatment less effective.
Your doctor may also suggest a medicine to numb your urinary tract and make you feel better while the antibiotic starts to work. The medicine makes your urine turn bright orange, so don't be alarmed by the color when you urinate.
If the treatment isn’t working, your symptoms will stay the same, get worse or you will develop new symptoms. Call your doctor if you have a fever (higher than 100.5 degrees), chills, lower stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting, or if, after taking medicine for 3 days, you still have a burning feeling when you urinate. If you are pregnant, you should also call your doctor if you have any contractions.
If you have 3 or more urinary tract infections each year, your doctor may want you to begin a preventive antibiotic program. A small dose of an antibiotic taken every day helps to reduce the number of infections. If sexual intercourse seems to cause infections for you, your doctor many suggest taking the antibiotic after intercourse.
You doctor may want to check to see if an anatomical (physical) problem is causing the UTIs. If so, surgery may be needed to fix the problem. Some children who have bladder or kidney problems have to take medicine all the time so they won't get another UTI. This medicine is taken once a day.
Yes, sometimes a UTI can damage the kidneys. It's important to seek treatment right away if you think you or your child has a UTI.
If you have a UTI and it isn't treated, it may lead to a kidney infection. Kidney infections may cause early labor. Fortunately, asymptomatic bacteriuria and bladder infections can usually be found and treated before the kidneys become infected. If your doctor treats a urinary tract infection early and properly, it won't hurt your baby.
Evaluation and Treatment of Urinary Tract Infections in Children by SM Ahmed, M.D., M.P.H., D.P.H., and SK Swedlund, M.D. (American Family Physician April 01, 1998, http://www.aafp.org/afp/980401ap/ahmed2.html)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff