What is a UTI and how to prevent it?

You may recognize the hallmark symptom of a urinary tract infection (UTI) as a burning sensation when you urinate, but did you know that it can also manifest as abdominal pain and even mental disorientation? Urinary tract infections, while surprisingly common, can lead to life-threatening complications if not properly treated. Don’t miss this quick guide to understanding UTIs, their symptoms, how they are diagnosed and treated, and how to prevent them.

What is a UTI?

The umbrella term “urinary tract infection” can involve a bacterial infection anywhere in the urinary system from your urethra to your bladder, ureters, even your kidneys. Most infections target the lower part of the urinary tract, the urethra (duct through which urine is output) and the bladder, and happen most frequently in women. Why women? Because of their anatomical makeup, women simply have a shorter urethra than men which allows bacteria to travel up to the bladder more quickly. The lifetime risk of developing at least one UTI ranges from a whopping 40 to 50% for women, though men are not completely risk-averse.

Additional risk factors for developing a UTI include sexual activity, certain types of birth control (like diaphragms), going through menopause, developing kidney stones, using a catheter, having a suppressed immune system, as well as urinary tract abnormalities and recent urinary procedures.

How do you know if you have a UTI?

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Depending on the specific part of your urinary tract that is infected, your symptoms may actually vary. For example, urethritis (an infection in your urethra) may only be accompanied by a burning when you urinate and some discharge. An infection up into your bladder (cystitis), however, may present more acute symptoms like:

  • Pressure in your pelvis

  • Pain and discomfort in your lower abdomen

  • Possible blood in your urine (pink discoloration)

  • Cloudy urine

  • Urine that gives off a strong odor

  • Frequent and painful urination

  • Confusion and disorientation (mostly in elderly adults)

If the infection has traveled even further up to your kidneys (acute pyelonephritis), symptoms grow more dangerous. In addition to nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills, you’ll feel moderate to severe pain in your upper back and sides.

While the urinary tract is designed to eliminate and flush out bacteria regularly, sometimes they multiply quickly and overtake the body’s own defenses. When they do and symptoms present, it is best to seek medical attention right away (schedule an appointment with your doctor or visit an urgent care clinic).

Diagnosing a UTI is typically fairly simple; first, a urine sample is taken to check for the presence of white and red blood cells as well as bacteria. If bacteria is found, it is “cultured” for 2 to 3 days so doctors can learn exactly what type of bacteria is causing the infection (this influences the type of antibiotic you will take). Frequent UTIs may implore your doctor to conduct imaging scans of your urinary tract as well as use a scope to look inside your urethra and bladder.

Typically, antibiotics are the only thing needed to wipe out an initial infection, however, IV drugs may be administered for a severe infection that is treated at the hospital.

Preventing a UTI

Luckily, there are an abundant amount of preventative measures you can take to prevent a UTI from occurring.

Stay hydrated – drinking lots of water throughout the day helps dilute your urine and triggers more frequent urination which flushes out unwanted bacteria.

Consume cranberry – drinking cranberry juice, cranberry extract, or taking cranberry supplements has wide anecdotal support for helping to eliminate bacteria in the urinary tract.

Try d-mannose – this natural sugar has been shown to help hinder bacteria from sticking to the walls of your urinary tract.

Go the bathroom after sexual intercourse – urinating after sexual intercourse helps to flush out bacteria that may have gotten moved around during the act.

Use good wiping technique – when you go the bathroom, make sure to wipe from front to back (and not the other way) to help move bacteria away from the urinary tract

For elderly adults who experience urinary incontinence, preventing UTIs may also involve:

Good hygiene following an undergarment change – fully cleaning (with wipes, perineal spray, etc.) and drying the area after a leak or accident can help to remove potentially harmful bacteria.

Use a bedside commode – avoid accidents and address the urgency to urinate by keeping a portable toilet (bedside commode) handy, especially by the bed at night.

Preventative steps for people with frequent UTIs may additionally incorporate taking low-dose antibiotics daily, taking an antibiotic each time you have sexual intercourse, or looking at vaginal estrogen therapy (for postmenopausal women). Avoiding things which irritate the urethra (like diaphragms, douches, and so forth) can also help.

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