Anita Sadaty, MD, is board-certified in obstetrics-gynecology. She is a clinical assistant professor at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine and founder of Redefining Health Medical.
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a common infection that can affect any part of the urinary system, including the kidneys, bladder, and urethra (the tube through which urine exits the body).
The most common cause of UTIs is the transfer of bacteria from the rectum or vagina to the urethra. The female anatomy places a woman at greater risk due to the shorter distance from the opening of the urethra to the bladder and the closer proximity of the urethra to the rectum. It’s estimated that at least 40 to 60% of women develop a UTI during their lifetime.
UTI symptoms may include pelvic pain, an increased urge to urinate, pain with urination, incontinence, and blood in the urine. A urinalysis is usually used to confirm a UTI and antibiotics are used to treat infections.
UTIs typically occur when bacteria enters the urethra and migrates to the bladder and sometimes the kidneys. Risk factors include sexual activity, pregnancy, menopause, retaining urine for long periods of time, chronic antibiotic use, having diabetes (which can increase urine glucose that bacteria feed on), and kidney stones or an enlarged prostate that obstructs the flow of urine.
The majority of UTIs are treated with antibiotics. Uncomplicated UTIs with mild symptoms sometimes resolve on their own and may only require drinking plenty of fluids and taking an OTC pain reliever. If symptoms last more than two days, an antibiotic is needed to clear the infection and prevent complications, such as a kidney infection and kidney damage.
Most treatments range from five to seven days with symptoms resolving in about two days. Pregnant women may require up to a 14-day course of antibiotics, and those with a compromised immune system may require up to 21 days of treatment.
Drink plenty of fluids, wear breathable cotton underwear, go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the urge to urinate (and wipe front to back), urinate immediately after sex, and wash your genitals and rectum daily with a mild soap daily (ideally before and after sex). Common remedies include probiotics to try to promote healthy digestive and vaginal flora and drinking a daily glass of unsweetened cranberry juice.
UTIs are most common in women, but they can also occur in men and children. The risk for UTIs in men increases with age and is associated with physiological changes that prevent the bladder from fully emptying, such as an enlarged prostate, or interfere with bowel control.
UTIs are not considered contagious and they are not a sexually transmitted disease (STD). However, bacteria that can lead to a UTI can be passed between partners during sex and bacteria can move into the uretha or farther up into the urethra during intercourse.
An inflammation of the bladder from a bacterial infection. UTIs that involve the bladder and urethra are known as acute cystitis and infections of the kidneys are pyelonephritis. Symptoms of acute cystitis include painful urination, cloudy urine, and urinary frequency and urgency.
The loss of bowel or bladder control. Urinary incontinence can range from a small leak to full loss of control. UTIs can irritate the bladder and cause incontinence that resolves after the infection is treated.
A kidney infection (pyelonephritis) is a bacterial infection that occurs in one or both kidneys. Bacteria, such as E. coli, can move from the urethra up through the bladder and ureters to enter the kidneys.
The urinary system, also known as the urinary tract, is the body’s system for producing and passing urine. It includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. The kidneys produce urine by filtering wastes and extra water from blood, and each kidney has a tube called a ureter that transports urine to the bladder. Urination occurs when urine passes from the bladder to the urethra to exit the body.
Urology Care Foundation. American Urologic Association. Urinary Tract Infections in Adults. Updated April 2019.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. What is a bladder infection? Updated March 2017.
Bono MJ, Reygaert WC. Urinary tract infection. In: StatPearls. Updated November 21, 2020.
Kolman KB. Cystitis and pyelonephritis. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice. 2019
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The urinary tract & how it works. Updated June 2020.