Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(1):159-160

What causes urinary tract infections?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in the kidneys, bladder, or urethra. Any part of your urinary tract can become infected. The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs that lie against the spine in the lower back. Blood flows through the kidneys. Waste products from the blood are removed in the kidneys and stored in the bladder as urine. The bladder is a balloon-shaped organ that stores urine. The urethra is the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body.

How do I know I have a UTI?

Nausea, lower back pain, and fever may be signs of an infection in the kidneys. Signs of an infection in the bladder include the following:

  • A burning feeling when you urinate

  • Feeling like you need to urinate more often than usual

  • Feeling the urge to urinate but not being able to

  • Feeling like you are going to pass out when you urinate

  • Leaking a little urine

  • Urine that smells bad

  • Cloudy, dark, or bloody urine

Why do women have UTIs more often than men?

Women probably have UTIs more often than men because bacteria can reach the bladder more easily in women. The urethra is shorter in women than in men, so bacteria have a shorter distance to travel.

The urethra also is located near the rectum in women. Bacteria from the rectum can travel up the urethra and cause infections more easily.

Having sex also may cause UTIs in women because bacteria can be pushed into the urethra. Using a diaphragm or a sponge can lead to infections because these contraceptives push against the urethra and make it harder to completely empty the bladder. The urine that stays in the bladder is more likely to grow bacteria and cause infections.

How are UTIs treated?

If your doctor thinks you have an infection, he or she will probably test a sample of your urine to find out if bacteria are in it. Your doctor will then prescribe an antibiotic for you if you have an infection. Usually, symptoms of the infection go away a day or two after you start taking the medicine.

Your doctor also may suggest a medicine to numb your urinary tract and make you feel better while the antibiotic starts to work. The medicine colors your urine bright orange, so do not be upset by the color when you urinate.

What can I do if I have frequent infections?

If you have UTIs often, you can try some of the suggestions in the box below. Talk with your doctor about what changes would be helpful for you.

Tips on Preventing UTIs

  • Drink lots of water to flush out bacteria. (Drinking cranberry juice may help prevent UTIs, though this has not been proved.)

  • Do not hold your urine. Urinate when you feel like you need to.

  • Use personal lubrication during sex. Try using a small amount of a lubricant such as K-Y Jelly before having sex if you are a little dry.

  • If you get UTIs often and you use a diaphragm or sponge, you may want to stop using them. Ask your doctor about other contraceptive choices.

  • Use condoms if you have anal sex.

  • If you get UTIs often after using condoms lubricated with the sperm-killer nonoxynol–9, switch to condoms that do not contain nonoxynol–9.

Your doctor also may give you a low dose of antibiotics for several months or longer to prevent infections from coming back.

If having sex seems to cause your infections, your doctor may suggest that you take a single antibiotic pill after you have sex to prevent an infection.

How serious are UTIs?

UTIs can be painful. But today's medicines can keep them from becoming a serious threat to your health.

If the kidneys are infected, this can be a more serious problem. Kidney infections usually require an antibiotic for a longer time and are sometimes treated in the hospital.

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