Urinary tract infections are nothing to smile about. Both men and women can get them, but women are more susceptible. In fact, studies reveal half the female population will get a UTI at some time during their lives, and some women get them repeatedly.

What Causes Urine Infections

There are various names for urine infections because the urinary tract covers different sections of the body: kidneys, ureters, the bladder and the urethra. An infection in the bladder for instance, is called cystitis, whereas an infection in the urethra itself is called urethritis. Viruses, fungi or bacteria (with bacteria being the most common culprit) cause all forms of UTI.

Working together, the various parts of the body form a drainage system that gets rid of excess water and flushes out toxins. The kidneys start the process, filtering blood to remove waste and excess water. The water then travels down the ureters from the kidneys to the bladder, where it’s stored before exiting down the urethra and out of the body.

Normally the body is good at flushing out bacteria before it has a chance to do harm, but sometimes things go wrong and bacteria multiplies, causing infection. Because the bacteria commonly associated with urinary tract infections is E.coli, which lives in the large intestine and is easily transferred from anus to urethra, women are advised to wipe from front to back after using the bathroom.

But this isn’t the only cause, as sex can introduce bacteria too.

In 1 in 5 women a different strain of bacteria can become immune to antibiotics and, able to live outside the cells they invade, they’re free to return and cause multiple infections one after another. Women with compromised immune systems are also more vulnerable, for instance those with diabetes, pregnant women, or anyone with kidney stones.

Recognizing UTI Symptoms

Symptoms can vary depending on age and gender, but will generally include:

  • Needing to urinate frequently.
  • Producing little urine, accompanied by a burning sensation in either bladder or urethra.
  • Urine that’s dark in color, cloudy or smells strong.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Feeling shaky.
  • Fever or chills that normally indicate the infection has reached the kidneys (or prostate in men). This can cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Pain in the lower back or abdomen, pelvic area or around the pelvic bone.
  • In older people, urine infections can sometimes be mistaken for other illnesses, and for people with a catheter the only symptom might be a fever.

Diagnosing Urine Infections

Initial diagnosis is done through a urine sample. You’ll probably be asked to provide a sample from mid-stream after first cleaning the genital area. This is so that no bacteria are transferred which could confuse the results. If the health care provider doesn’t have testing facilities at the office or surgery, the sample will be sent to a laboratory.

Additional tests are sometimes needed, especially for people who suffer from recurring UTIs. These could include:

  • Ultrasound on the kidneys or bladder — a quick and painless procedure using a transducer similar to that used during routine scans on pregnant women.
  • A CT Scan — a contrast medium may be injected to help specialists interpret the X-ray results shown in the 3D images built up by the CT scanner.
  • MRI Scans — also provide clear images of organs inside the body, but don’t use X-rays.

There are other tests too which are used to determine such things as how well the bladder, urethra and sphincters are operating to store then release urine, or to explore other signs of infection inside the body such as swellings. Most tests are painless and don’t need anesthetic, although for some patients and tests a localized anesthetic is used. Others, for instance those with a fear of enclosed spaces, may be offered a sedative if they need an MRI scan.

Treating and Preventing Urinary Tract Infections

Generally, antibiotics do the job. It’s important to finish the entire prescription even if the infection clears up before all the medication is taken. Occasionally, patients are offered medication to ease the pain associated with UTI, and home remedies such as using a heated pad can also help.

Preventing infection is relatively simple most of the time if there are no other underlying causes:

  • Drink lots of water to keep the system flushed.
  • Wash before and after sex.
  • Try to avoid feminine hygiene products such as scented douches and sprays.
  • Try to avoid unlubricated condoms or spermicidal jelly that can cause irritation.
  • Use the bathroom as soon as you feel the need to empty your bladder.
  • Shower rather than bathe.
  • Wear loose clothing and cotton underwear that won’t trap moisture.

Being so common, UTIs are simple to diagnose and treat under normal circumstances. If you’re getting the symptoms, there is no need to suffer in silence when it’s so easily treated.