What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)? How can I prevent a UTI?

A UTI is an infection in the urinary system. The infection can be in the bladder, where urine is stored (cystitis); in the urethra, the tube from the bladder out of the body (urethritis); or in the kidneys (nephritis). Almost half of all women will experience a urinary tract infection in their lifetimes.

Most UTIs are caused by bacteria from other parts of the body ending up where they don’t belong. For example, the most common cause is E.coli found in stool in the rectum getting into the urinary tract. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what causes UTIs in individual cases; people blame UTIs on everything from riding a bike to wearing non-cotton underwear too often.

 

But why do women experience UTIs more often than men? There is actually a simple answer to this: the distance between the opening of the urethra and the anus. In women, the openings to the urethra, the vagina, and the rectum are very close together so it is easy for bacteria to accidentally get to the urinary opening. In contrast, try imagining the more difficult maneuvering it takes for bacteria from a man’s anus to reach the tip of his penis to enter his urinary tract. That’s a much longer journey. For even more proof that distance matters, women who have a shorter distance between their urethra and anus are more likely to get a UTI than women with a longer distance.

 

There are many ways to prevent a UTI, but most of them involve keeping harmful bacteria away from the urinary opening and flushing out your system by staying well hydrated. After urinating, make sure to wipe from front to back and use separate toilet paper to clean the anus. Drink plenty of water to keep the urinary tract flushed out regularly. Many women find that products believed to contain compounds that prevent bacteria from adhering to the walls of the urinary tract (e.g., cranberry products) or increase the acidity of the urine (e.g., Vitamin C) are useful. Regular bathing is also important to keep that area clean. Showers are better than baths, and unscented soap products are more gentle on the genital and anal areas. Your clothing choice is also something to consider. Cotton underwear “breathes” more than synthetic underwear which can trap moisture. Lastly, sexual activity can lead to a UTI. Make sure to thoroughly clean anything (fingers, genitals, sex toys, etc.) that touches your anus before touching genitals. Urinating after sex can also help clear out bacteria that may have entered the urinary tract.

Here are some common UTI symptoms to look out for:

  • Pain or burning while urinating (dysuria)
  • Urgent need to urinate frequently (urinary urgency)
  • Feeling the need to urinate even though the bladder is empty
  • Cloudy, bloody, or strange smelling urine
  • Pelvic pain

Older and elderly women may not experience the same clear, physical symptoms of a UTI. Instead, sudden behavior changes are indicators of a UTI. According to A Place For Mom, “falls, confusion, new onset of incontinence in someone who had been getting to the bathroom, decrease in appetite, any of these can be a sign of a urinary tract infection. It really requires a detective-like index of suspicion from the caregiver.”

If you experience severe back pain, nausea, vomiting, shaking and chills, and/or fever, it’s an indication that the infection may have moved to the kidneys.

 

To know for sure whether or not you have a UTI, you need to visit a nurse or doctor who will conduct a quick test called a urinalysis, where they test your urine for a specific bacteria. Most UTIs are treated with antibiotics. Symptoms will usually go away quickly, in the first few days, but it is important to finish the prescribed amount of antibiotics because the infection might come back. Even though antibiotics are a common treatment, in this era of promoting a more responsible and cautious approach to antibiotic use, many women are encouraged to find other ways of reducing UTI symptoms. The UTI may resolve itself before you  resort to antibiotic treatment. Please note: pregnant women and anyone with UTI symptoms accompanied by chills, fever, vomiting, and/or pain in the kidneys [near middle of the back] should not wait to contact their health provider. Many of the suggestions for preventing UTIs will also work to treat a UTI, especially good hydration and flushing out the system (with particular attention to completely emptying the bladder). Probiotics, such as live-culture yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi are also a popular way to combat UTIs.

 

To learn more about UTIs check out our Urinary Tract Infection Fact Sheet.

 

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