Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2005;71(1):133-134

What causes urinary tract infections?

Most urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria (germs). Any part of your urinary tract can be infected. The urinary tract includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Bladder infections are the most common.

How do I know if I have a urinary tract infection?

The box below lists possible signs of a bladder infection. Nausea, lower back pain, and fever may be signs of a kidney infection. Call your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Possible signs of a bladder infection

  • A burning sensation when you urinate

  • Feeling like you need to urinate more often than usual

  • Feeling the urge to urinate but not being able to

  • Leaking a little urine

  • Urine that smells bad

  • Cloudy, dark, or bloody urine

Why do women have urinary tract infections more often than men?

Women tend to have urinary tract infections 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.

Having sex may cause urinary tract infections in women because bacteria can be pushed into the urethra. Using a diaphragm can lead to infections because diaphragms 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 urinary tract infections treated?

If your doctor thinks you have a bladder infection, he or she will test a sample of your urine to find out if there are bacteria in it. Your doctor will give you an antibiotic if you have an infection. Symptoms of the infection usually go away in a couple of days after you start taking the medicine.

Your doctor may give you 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 alarmed by the color when you urinate.

What can I do if I have frequent infections?

If you have urinary tract infections often, you can try some of the tips listed on the next page. Talk with your doctor about what changes would be helpful for you.

Your doctor also may give you a low dose of medicine to take for several months to try to keep your infections from coming back.

If having sex seems to cause your infections, your doctor may want you to take a single antibiotic pill right after you have sex to prevent urinary tract infections.

Tips on preventing urinary tract infections

  • Drink plenty of water to flush out bacteria. Drinking cranberry juice may help prevent urinary tract infections. However, if you are taking a medicine called warfarin (brand name: Coumadin), check with your doctor before you drink cranberry juice. Your doctor may need to change your warfarin dose, or you may need to have blood tests more often.

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

  • Wipe from front to back after bowel movements.

  • Urinate right after having sex to help wash away bacteria.

  • Use enough lubrication during sex. Women can try using a small amount of lubricant (such as K-Y Jelly) before sex if they are a little dry.

  • Women who often get urinary tract infections may want to avoid using a diaphragm. Ask your doctor about other birth control choices.

How serious are urinary tract infections?

Bladder infections can be painful. Medicine can keep them from becoming a serious problem.

Kidney infections are a more serious problem. People with kidney infections usually need to take antibiotics for a longer time and are sometimes treated in the hospital.

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