Urinary Tract Infection: What You Need to Know to Get Relief Fast
What is a urinary tract infection?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is caused by bacteria invading the urinary system, which includes organs like the kidneys and bladder. A UTI most often develops in the bladder. (The bladder holds the urine until you decide to go to the bathroom.) But it can also affect the kidneys, ureters (the tube that moves urine from the kidney to your bladder), and the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the bladder).
UTIs are more common in women than in men.
Typically, when you have a UTI, you may have pain when you urinate. You may also need to go much more often than usual.
UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics. If untreated, the infection can get worse and spread.
Most common symptoms
A common misconception is that burning or discomfort with urination is always a sign of a UTI. Some vaginal infections and STDs present in this manner. In order to differentiate it from other diagnoses, a urine culture needs to be done and possibly vaginal cultures. —Dr. Jessica White-Videa, DO, FACOG
Often, the first sign of a UTI is pain when urinating—a burning, tingling, or stinging sensation. The pain may make it difficult to urinate.
You may constantly feel the urge to go to the bathroom, even right after you just went. Sometimes it feels like the bladder isn’t completely empty. The need to urinate may be sudden and intense and feel as if it is difficult to hold the urine in.
These sensations are from bacteria irritating the tubes of the urinary system. This causes inflammation, which is your body’s response to fighting off an infection.
In men, these symptoms can be confused with prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate). In women, symptoms can be confused with vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina). That is why your doctor will want to be sure it is a UTI before prescribing medication.
- Dysuria: burning, tingling, or stinging when urinating
- Urgency: urinating more often—and the urge to go may be strong and sudden
- Pain below the belly button
Other symptoms you may have
- Smelly, cloudy, or bloody urine
- Fever or chills
- Pain in your back or side
- Nausea or vomiting
I often treat patients based on their symptoms regardless of what the urine culture results may show due to the possibility of a false negative result. However, in menopausal women, Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause must also be considered. A woman’s menopausal status can put them at increased risk for UTIs, which can present in a similar manner. —Dr. Jessica White-Videa
There are two kinds of UTIs: uncomplicated and complicated. Uncomplicated is a more common simple infection, while complicated means there are other health issues going on. The risk factors and treatment are different for each type.
You are more likely to have an uncomplicated UTI if you:
- Are female
- Are sexually active
- Do not urinate after sexual intercourse
- Have had UTIs before
You are more likely to have a complicated UTI if you:
- Are male
- Have gone through menopause
- Are pregnant
- Have had symptoms for more than 7 days without treatment
- Have diabetes
- Have a weak immune system
- Have a urinary catheter
- Have had surgery on your urinary tract
- Have a structural problem with your urinary tract
- Have had any objects or devices placed into your ureters (such as by surgery or a recent placement of a catheter)
- Have had kidney stones
Make an appointment with a doctor or nurse practitioner. If you cannot be seen in the next 24 hours, consider going to urgent care. If the pain is very severe, go to the emergency room for treatment. Consider going to the emergency room if it is after-hours and you are experiencing UTI symptoms as well as:
- A high fever
- Feel very sick or tired
- Unable to drink any fluid
- Are pregnant
- Have severe side pain
What causes urinary tract infections?
A UTI is from bacteria getting into your urinary system. The infection may grow quickly. Bacteria can come from normal bacteria found in the bowels, sexual contact, bowel movements (especially if you wipe back-to-front), or a urinary catheter.
You’re more likely to get UTI if you don’t urinate regularly, or if you do not urinate after sex. (Urinating helps flush out bacteria.) You shouldn’t ignore your body telling you that the bladder is full by “holding it in.”
Urinary tract infection treatment
You should tell your doctor if this is your first UTI or if it is recurrent. Also, you should let your doctor know if there are certain times when you get a UTI, i.e., after intercourse. —Dr. Jessica White-Videa
Your doctor will ask for a urine sample to test. Portions of the test are available right away (UA), but other parts may take several days to develop (urine culture). If you have a fever and your doctor is concerned that you may have a complicated UTI, you may also have an ultrasound of your kidneys, or other types of imaging such as CT. If you have a confirmed infection, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics to take by mouth or via an IV (if you are severely ill).
There are many different types of antibiotics. Some require only one pill while others will be taken for up to 2 weeks. Your doctor will figure out which one is best for you based on:
- How severe your UTI is.
- Whether your UTI is complicated or uncomplicated.
- Whether you’ve previously had antibiotic-resistant UTIs—a UTI that did not get better after taking medication.
Always take all the antibiotics as directed. Never skip a dose, even if you are feeling better. If you stop taking the antibiotics, the infection can come back even worse, as a result of a phenomenon called bacterial resistance.
In addition to antibiotics, there are some other ways you can manage your symptoms.
- Drink plenty of water. It helps get bacteria out of your bladder.
- Use a heating pad to soothe pelvic pain.
- Drinking cranberry juice might help. It contains natural antibacterial compounds. Consider a low-sugar version, since sugar actually helps fuel bacterial growth.
- Taking phenazopyridine (brand name Azo) can relieve pain when urinating. It does not cure a UTI and is not instead of antibiotics. Do not take more than the package recommends.
Contact your doctor if symptoms do not get better within 48 to 72 hours. Or if they come back after you’ve finished taking antibiotics. Your doctor will probably want to try a different medication. Always let your doctor know if you have 3 or more UTIs in a year.
You can lower the chances of getting a UTI by:
- Drinking water throughout the day. You want your urine to be light yellow or clear.
- Go to the bathroom as soon as you can after sex.
- Wipe front-to-back (toward your butt), never back-to-front (toward your stomach).
- If you have gone through menopause, and have frequent UTIs, talk to your doctor about estrogen therapy.
Elliot Stein is a second-year internal medicine resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and he intends to sub-specialize in cardiovascular disease. He graduated magna cum laude with an undergraduate degree in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard College in 2013. He obtained his MD and Master of Science in Translational Research (MSTR) from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in 2019. He stayed at the University of Pennsylvania to complete his internship year 2019-2020 at Pennsylvania Hospital. Elliot also served as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in two countries and three US states before beginning his medical career. He joined Buoy Health in 2018 because of its promise to use new technology to deliver higher quality medical information to anyone regardless of ability to access medical care.