If you're experiencing a frequent urge to go to the bathroom - and a painful burning sensation when you do go - you may be experiencing a urinary tract infection.
Also known as UTI, urinary tract infections occur in some part of your urinary system, which is made up of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. They're actually quite common: According to the American Urological Association, some 150 million people worldwide are diagnosed with UTIs every year.
Women, however, are also more susceptible to developing UTIs than men, Mayo Clinic reports. Particularly, women who are pregnant, sexually active, or have certain chronic illnesses like diabetes are at a greater risk for developing a UTI.
The infections are usually characterized by a burning sensation when urinating, more frequent urination, and an urgent feeling when you need to go. They're usually treated with antibiotics, though if the infection spreads to your kidneys, it could have serious consequences. Here's what you need to know about UTI symptoms, treatment, and prevention.
Most common UTI symptoms
UTI symptoms can be uncomfortable to say the least. You may find yourself waking up at night for multiple trips to the bathroom, often accompanied with pain or sometimes a little bit of blood. UTIs don't always cause symptoms, but when they do, you may experience:
- A strong urge to go to the bathroom
- Passing urine more frequently than normal
- A burning sensation when peeing
- Cloudy urine, or urine that appears pink or red
- Pelvic pain
- Foul-smelling urine
Typically, the infection is treated with antibiotics, which are prescribed based on the type of bacteria found in your urine. "The most common UTI-causing bacteria is the E. coli found in our gut," Michael Ingber, M.D., a board-certified urogynecologist at The Center for Specialized Women's Health in Morristown, NJ., says. He adds that other, more aggressive bacteria, like staph, can cause UTIs, too.
Signs your UTI has progressed
Not all UTIs are the same. Infections can happen in the three different parts of the urinary tract: the urethra, bladder, and kidneys. "Sometimes, UTIs clear up on their own," Dr. Ingber says. But UTIs can get serious if you don't see a doctor in time.
"Bladder infections can lead to kidney infections," Dr. Ingber says, which typically causes chills, back pain, nausea, high fever, and vomiting. "If those bacteria enter your blood stream, you can end up with urosepsis," which is a subset of Sepsis, a blood infection that produces deadly toxins and invades your body, is pretty rare. According to Dr. Ingber, the mortality rate for sepsis is about 20 to 40%, and urosepsis makes up 10 to 25% of sepsis cases.
"The elderly may not have or be as vocal about the early symptoms like burning or urinary frequency," Dr. Ingber says. "They can have more atypical symptoms like abdominal pain, confusion, and lethargy." Sometimes seniors' infections advance to a more serious stage before they get medical help, which can lead to urosepsis. If you or an elder you're caring for has UTI symptoms, see a doctor immediately.
Some women are more prone to UTIs
UTIs may peak infrequency twice in a woman's life: when she's first sexually active and then again around menopause. Younger women who've been infected are more at risk for developing cystitis or bladder infections if E. coli bacteria get pushed from the urethra into the bladder.
In middle-aged women, hormones can provide a welcoming environment for UTIs. "When estrogen levels decline, the vaginal pH increases, or otherwise becomes more alkaline," Dr. Ingber says. "This is an environment where E. coli and other bacteria like to grow."
Pregnant women and those with immune-compromising diseases or conditions like diabetes or obesity should get UTI screenings more often. They may require more aggressive UTI treatment to prevent kidney infections from developing.
To prevent UTIs in women, Ingber recommends three things: "Stay hydrated, urinate as soon as you feel the urge, and maintain good hygiene." According to Mayo Clinic, drinking cranberry juice, going to the bathroom immediately after sex, and wiping from front to back can reduce your risk of developing a UTI.
Other conditions that have similar symptoms
Sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia and herpes can cause urethritis, or inflammation of the urethra, which presents similarly to a UTI. Interstitial or non-infectious cystitis, which also has similar symptoms, affects nearly 6 million women annually, according to Dr. Ingber.
Kidney stones, anatomic problems in the kidney, or an inflamed pouch on the urethra may also mimic a UTI. Only doctor's office tests will help distinguish between UTIs and these other problems to get the right care. If UTI symptoms persist or worsen despite antibiotic treatments, get checked right away to rule out more serious condition, such as bladder cancer.
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