Urinary tract infection: Causes, symptoms, and prevention

Urinary tract infections are caused by microbes such as bacteria overcoming the body’s defenses in the urinary tract. They can affect the kidneys, bladder, and the tubes that run between them.

They are one of the most common types of infection and account for around 8.1 million visits to a doctor every year.

The urinary tract can be divided into the upper urinary tract and the lower urinary tract. The upper urinary tract consists of the kidneys and the ureters, and the lower urinary tract consists of the bladder and the urethra.

Fast facts on urinary tract infections

Here are some key points about urinary tract infection. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

Women have a lifetime risk of over 50 percent of developing a urinary tract infection (UTI).

Common symptoms include a strong, frequent urge to urinate and a painful and burning sensation when urinating.

A UTI is usually diagnosed based on symptoms and testing of a urine sample.

UTIs can be cured with 2 to 3 days of treatment.

Cranberry extracts do not treat UTIs but may help reduce the risk of recurrent UTI.


Diagram of kidneys
The urinary tract is comprised of the bladder, kidneys, ureters, and urethra.

The vast majority of urinary tract infections (UTIs) are caused by the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli), usually found in the digestive system. Chlamydia and mycoplasma bacteria can infect the urethra but not the bladder.

UTIs are given different names depending on where they occur. For example:

A bladder infection is called cystitis.

A urethra infection is called urethritis.

A kidney infection is called pyelonephritis.

The ureters are very rarely the site of infection.

Risk factors

Over 50 percent of all women will experience at least one UTI during their lifetime, with 20 to 30 percent experiencing recurrent UTIs.

Pregnant women are not more likely to develop a UTI than other women, but if one does occur, it is more likely to travel up to the kidneys. This is because changes in the body during pregnancy that affect the urinary tract.

As a UTI in pregnancy can prove dangerous for both maternal and infant health, most pregnant women are tested for the presence of bacteria in their urine, even if there are no symptoms, and treated with antibiotics to prevent spread.

People of any age and sex can develop a UTI. However, some people are more at risk than others. The following factors can increase the likelihood of developing a UTI:

sexual intercourse, especially if more frequent, intense, and with multiple or new partners


poor personal hygiene

problems emptying the bladder completely

having a urinary catheter

bowel incontinence

blocked flow of urine

kidney stones

some forms of contraception



procedures involving the urinary tract

suppressed immune system

immobility for a long period

use of spermicides and tampons

heavy use of antibiotics, which can disrupt the natural flora of the bowel and urinary tract


Woman with pain in the abdomen
Abdominal pains are a common symptom of UTIs.

The symptoms of a UTI can depend on age, gender, the presence of a catheter, and what part of the urinary tract has been infected.

Common symptoms of a UTI include:

strong and frequent urge to urinate

cloudy, bloody, or strong-smelling urine

pain or a burning sensation when urinating

nausea and vomiting

muscle aches and abdominal pains

People with catheters may only experience fever as a symptom, making diagnosis more difficult.

Acute pyelonephritis

Acute pyelonephritis is a sudden and severe kidney infection. If an individual develops this condition they could also experience upper back and side pain, high fever, shaking, chills, fatigue, and mental changes. It is considered an emergency and should be evaluated by a doctor immediately if suspected.


If a person has a bladder infection, they could also experience low fever, and pressure and cramping in the abdomen and lower back.


Most UTIs are not serious, but some can lead to serious problems, particularly with upper UTIs.

Recurrent or long-lasting kidney infections can cause permanent damage, and some sudden kidney infections can be life-threatening, particularly if bacteria enter the bloodstream in a condition known as septicemia.

They can also increase the risk of women delivering infants that are premature or have a low birth weight.

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There are several measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of developing a UTI:

Drink lots of water and urinate frequently.

Avoid fluids such as alcohol and caffeine that can irritate the bladder.

Urinate shortly after sex.

Wipe from front to back after urinating and bowel movement.

Keep the genital area clean.

Showers are preferred to baths and avoid using oils.

Sanitary pads or menstrual cups are preferred to tampons. If you want to buy menstrual cups, then there is an excellent selection on Amazon with thousands of customer reviews.

Avoid using a diaphragm or spermicide for birth control.

Avoid using any perfumed products in the genital area.

Wear cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothing to keep the area around the urethra dry.

Individuals are advised to contact a doctor if they develop the symptoms of a UTI, especially if they have developed the symptoms of a potential kidney infection.


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