Although men and women both can get urinary tract infections, if you are a woman, your risk of contracting this ailment is about 50% throughout the course of your life. They cause discomfort and inconvenience, but more importantly, they can damage your kidneys if they worsen. Luckily, they are easy to treat and usually produce symptoms that are hard to miss, motivating you to take action. Since your kidneys may be involved, you might want to skip the over-the-counter remedies available and see your doctor for proper and efficient treatment.

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

Your urinary system includes your kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. A urinary tract infection, or UTI, is an infection in any of those areas, although they most commonly involve only the bladder and the urethra. Bacteria enter your urinary system, and if your immune system doesn’t adequately fight it, an infection can take hold.

Urinary tract infections are one of the most common types of infection and more often than not are easy to treat. However, what is usually merely the source of discomfort and inconvenience can put your kidneys at risk. To ensure that your UTI doesn't spread to your kidneys, pay attention to your symptoms to see if you might have a UTI, and if so, get prompt treatment.

Stages and Types of Urinary Tract Infections

There are several types of urinary tract infections that you can acquire:

  • Kidneys – pyelonephritis (the most severe): This is an infection that has spread to your kidneys and can result in kidney damage if not treated.
  • Bladder – cystitis: This infection involves your bladder.
  • Urethra – urethritis: This is the infection that occurs in your urethra.

The infections involving the bladder and urethra, or the lower urinary tract, are the most common. Fortunately, the more dangerous upper urinary tract infections involving the kidneys are not as common.

Symptoms and Causes

Bacteria can enter the urinary system through the urethra. When this bacteria multiplies faster than your body destroys it, your urinary tract becomes infected.

The symptoms of a UTI cause discomfort and are therefore not easy to ignore. It is important to note that not all of these symptoms may be present, so see your doctor if you think anything is amiss.

Your symptoms can indicate which part of your urinary system has the infection:

Kidneys

  • High fever
  • Chills
  • Shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Back and side pain
  • Confusion
  • Agitation

Bladder

  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Frequent urination
  • Pain during urination
  • Bloody, cloudy or bad smelling urine

Urethra

  • Burning during urination
  • Discharge

Prevention and Risks

Women have a higher chance of contracting a UTI than men, although men with prostate problems have a higher risk than men who do not. Also at risk are people who have urinary catheters, diabetics or women who have had children. Anyone with a suppressed immune system also may have an increased risk of contracting a urinary tract infection.

In addition to drinking plenty of fluids, prevent UTIs by developing habits that reduce the opportunity for bacteria to enter your urinary tract:

  • Wipe from your urethra towards the anus and not the other way around.
  • Urinate after intercourse.
  • Wash your hands before handling feminine hygiene products.
  • Get prompt treatment for vaginal infections.
  • Urinate as soon as you feel the need rather than waiting.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your family doctor can diagnose a UTI as well as prescribe the antibiotic you’ll need for treatment. If the infection has spread to your kidney, your doctor may refer you to a urologist, a specialist with expertise in conditions involving the urinary tract. Your doctor will assess your symptoms to determine if testing for a UTI is warranted. Tests may include:

  • A urine sample analysis, in which lab technicians check your urine for white and red blood cells as well as the bacteria that is causing the infection
  • A urine culture, in which bacteria from your urine is grown in a lab for more detailed analysis

If you have frequent UTIs and your doctor suspects an abnormality in your urinary system, additional testing may include:

  • A cystoscopy, or insertion of a thin tube equipped with a camera through your urethra to your bladder
  • Various imaging tests, such as a CT scan or MRI, sometimes with contrast dye

See your doctor if you have any symptoms of a UTI to ensure that any infection you may have is not left unchecked to spread to your kidneys.

Treatment, Procedures, and Medication

The typical treatment for a urinary tract infection is a prescription of antibiotics. The type of bacteria found in your urine sample will determine which drug your doctor will prescribe. Remember to take all of the medication as prescribed and finish the prescription even after the symptoms have abated.

To reduce your discomfort, apply warmth to your abdomen with a heating pad or hot water bottle wrapped in a towel. Drink adequate fluids and take an over-the-counter painkiller if you need pain relief.

Also, if your symptoms worsen or if your infection comes back once treatment has stopped, see your doctor as soon as you can for more help combating your infection.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips

Lifestyle can improve or worsen most medical conditions, and urinary tract infections are no exception. Boost your immune system with proper sleep, exercise, and nutrition. Since stress can interfere with these critical health factors, you should try to reduce your stress level as well. Practice good hygiene to ensure that harmful bacteria doesn’t end up where it doesn’t belong, and stay properly hydrated as well.

To combat a urinary tract infection with diet involves several approaches: strengthening your immune system to fight infection, changing the pH of your urine to interfere with bacterial growth, and introducing good bacteria to reduce UTI symptoms. Foods to add to your diet that accomplish these goals include:

  • Kefir (a dairy drink containing live cultures, which you can buy at health food stores)
  • Yogurt (be sure it contains live and active cultures) 
  • Vitamin C sources (such as oranges, cauliflower, tomatoes, broccoli)
  • Antioxidant sources (such as cranberries and blueberries)
  • Foods without refined sugar

In addition to a healthy diet, proper hydration encourages regular emptying of your bladder which will help flush out any bacteria that may be present.

Conclusion

Even though urinary tract infections can sometimes turn into more severe kidney infections, your risk of complications is low if you seek prompt medical care. Treatment is simple and usually very effective, and preventative measures can help you avoid a new infection. See your doctor if you have any symptoms of a UTI or any questions about the health of your urinary system.