Everything you need to know about UTIs

Urinary tract infections, UTIs for short, can happen to anyone and can affect any part of the urinary tract; from the urethra, to the bladder, all the way to the kidneys. It’s actually among the most common infections in humans!

UTI facts infographic

Your UTI Basics

UTIs are most commonly caused by microbes that enter your urinary tract via your urethra. This is the tube that connects your bladder to the outside world and allows urine to exit your body. In most cases, and if treated in a timely fashion, these microbes travelling through the urethra won’t get any further than your bladder. Sometimes, however, the infection can spread further and move all the way up into your kidneys where it can cause a nasty kidney infection. This is much less common than your usual UTI but also much more common. In most cases, your UTI will be caused by bacteria but, in some cases, it might also be caused by different types of fungi or viruses.

There are two different types of UTIs – complicated and uncomplicated. Uncomplicated UTIs happen to healthy people with a healthy and normal urinary tract and are most commonly seen in women of all ages. Complicated UTIs happen to people with abnormal urinary tracts or when the bacteria can’t be treated with antibiotics. These forms of UTIs are most likely seen in men and children.

Who is most at risk of getting a UTI?

As we already know, everyone can get a UTI at any time and they can be caused by anything that reduces your ability to empty your bladder or that irritates the urinary tract in any way. Overall, however, there are certain factors that can put you at a greater risk of developing a UTI:

  • If you’ve previously suffered from UTIs
  • Age: Older people are more prone to developing UTIs
  • If you’re suffering from reduced mobility or have to be on bedrest for a prolonged period of time
  • If you suffer from kidney stones
  • If anything is obstructing or blocking your urinary tract. For example, an enlarged prostate or cancer.
  • If you’ve been living with a urinary catheter for a while
  • If you’re suffering from diabetes, especially if it’s managed poorly
  • If you’re pregnant
  • If you have an abnormal urinary tract
  • If you have a weakened immune system
  • If you’re a woman and sexually active

Why are women at a greater risk of developing a UTI?

Anatomically speaking women have a much shorter urethra than men that sits very close to both vagina and anus. This combination makes it much easier for bacteria to find their way into the urethra and cause an infection. Bacteria that occurs naturally in the vagina and the anus can lead to infections when they enter the urinary tract.

What are the symptoms of a UTI?

The symptoms of a UTI can vary greatly and are fully dependent on what part of the urinary tract is affected by it. Generally, though, it will cause you to experience pain in your abdomen and pelvic area and you’ll likely feel the need to pee more often than you usually do. If your infection is particularly bad, you might even have an accident because you’re not able to control your urge anymore.

Symptoms of a lower urinary tract infection (“normal” UTI)

  • You’ll need to pee more often but it’s only small amounts
  • It burns when you go for a pee
  • Pink, red, or cola coloured urine
  • Cloudy and strong smelling urine
  • You’ll feel an increased urge to pee
  • When you’re a man, you might suffer from rectal pain

Symptoms of kidney infection (upper urinary tract affected)

If the infection has made its way up to your kidneys, you will likely experience symptoms including fever, back pain, chills, pain in your upper back and your sides, nausea, and vomiting. A kidney infection needs to be treated as a matter of urgency as the infection can quickly get into the bloodstream from your kidneys. This is called urosepsis and can cause anything from dangerously low blood pressure, shock, to death.

Woman holding belly

What to do when you suspect you have a UTI?

Do you think you’re suffering from a UTI? Then it’s best to speak with your healthcare professional about getting treatment. If you can see any blood in your urine, it’s important to get in touch with your GP as well as, although it can be caused by a UTI, it might be caused by a different problem in your urinary tract. If you’re suffering from frequent UTIs, it might be worth having a conversation with your GP about doing some more thorough tests or to be referred to a urologist.

How is a UTI diagnosed?

If it’s your first ever UTI, your GP will likely spend some time to look at your symptoms and perform a physical exam. They’ll most likely test a urine sample for microbes. This sample is usually taken from the middle of the urine stream, also called a clean catch, to make sure it doesn’t get contaminated by any yeast or bacteria from your skin. They’ll likely also do a urine culture to test for bacteria or fungi which is necessary to identify the cause for the infection. If both tests come back negative and your GP suspects a virus, they will likely perform further tests. A virus is generally a very rare cause for a UTI but sometimes it can occur. It’s most common in people who’ve had an organ transplant or any other condition that’s caused their immune system to be weakened.

Upper tract UTIs

If your doctor suspects a kidney infection, they will likely do a complete blood count or CBC as well as blood cultures in addition to the usual urine test. This is to make sure the infection hasn’t spread into your bloodstream yet.

Recurrent UTIs

If you’re suffering from UTIs frequently, your GP is likely going to do tests to check for any abnormalities or obstructions in your urinary tract. This can be done via:

  • Ultrasound
  • Cystoscopy: A small camera will be inserted into the urethra and pushed all the way into the bladder
  • Intravenous pyelogram: A dye will be injected into the body that will then travel through your urinary tract. As it travels, your doctor will take an x-ray of your abdomen to check how it’s travelling through your urinary tract.
  • CT scan to get more detailed images of your urinary tract

How are UTIs treated?

Which treatment you will receive for your UTI is fully dependent on what has caused your UTI in the first place. Bacteria is generally treated with antibiotics, fungi with antifungals, and viruses with antivirals. If you’re suffering from an uncomplicated UTI, your GP will usually just prescribe a short course of oral antibiotics. To ensure the bacteria doesn’t get resistant to the antibiotics, you’ll generally be prescribed the shortest possible course which is usually anywhere between 3 days to a week.

Your symptoms are likely to get better or go away completely after the first few doses of antibiotics but it’s super important that you finish the pack. A UTI that’s not been fully treated is likely going to come back so you should always make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions for taking your meds. If your symptoms don’t get better or don’t go away fully, your doctor might prescribe you a different antibiotic or might switch you to IV antibiotics. You will most likely also get IV antibiotics if you suffer from a kidney infection.

Home remedies for UTI

There are no home remedies that can cure a UTI but there are things you can do to make your medication work better or quicker. For example, drink more water on a daily basis to flush your bladder through more.

How can you prevent a UTI in the future?

It’s not possible to entirely prevent a UTI but you can do certain things to make it less likely.

  • Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water each day
  • Make sure to go pee when you have to; holding on to urine can cause bacteria to build up
  • If you struggle with emptying your bladder at all, talk to your doctor about it

There is some evidence that suggests that cranberries carry a chemical that will prevent certain type of bacteria from attaching to the lining of your bladder. However, this has not been proven 100%.

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