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Urinary Tract Infection in Women

What is a urinary tract infection?

Urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection of one or more parts of the urinary tract. The urinary tract includes your:

  • Kidneys, which make urine
  • Ureters, which are the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • Bladder, which stores urine
  • Urethra, which is the tube that drains urine from the bladder

What is the cause?

Urinary tract infection is usually caused by bacteria. Normally the urinary tract does not have any bacteria or other organisms in it. Bacteria that cause a UTI often spread from the rectum or vagina to the urethra and then to the bladder or kidneys. Urinary tract infection is common in women because the urethra is short. This makes it easier for bacteria to move up to the bladder. Sometimes bacteria spread from another part of the body through the bloodstream to the urinary tract.

Some of the things that can lead to an infection are:

  • A blockage in the urinary tract, such as a kidney stone
  • A sexually transmitted disease or infection (also called an STD or STI)
  • Getting older, when it may get harder to empty and flush out the bladder completely
  • Having diabetes, a problem with the immune system, sickle cell anemia, stroke, kidney stones, or any illness that makes it hard to empty your bladder completely
  • Use of a catheter to drain the bladder
  • Scarring in the urinary tract from previous infections or surgery

You are more likely to have an infection if:

  • You just started having sex or have a new sex partner.
  • You are past menopause.
  • You are pregnant.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Urinating more often
  • Feeling an urgent need to urinate or that your bladder is always full
  • Pain or burning when you urinate
  • Pain in your lower belly, low back, or your side
  • Urine that smells bad
  • Urine that looks cloudy, reddish, or bloody
  • Fever and chills or sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Leaking of urine
  • Change in amount of urine, either more or less
  • Pain during sex

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests to diagnose a simple urinary tract infection may include:

  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests

If you are having more serious symptoms or frequent infections, you may need:

  • An intravenous pyelogram (IVP), which is a series of X-rays taken after your healthcare provider injects dye into your blood vessels to look for blockages in your kidneys and urinary tract
  • An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the kidneys and urinary tract
  • A pelvic exam
  • A cystoscopy, which uses a slim, flexible, lighted tube passed through your urethra into your bladder. It is usually done by a specialist called a urologist.

How is it treated?

Your healthcare provider will most likely prescribe an antibiotic and medicine to help relieve burning and discomfort. Prompt treatment of a UTI usually relieves the symptoms in 1 to 2 days. If your infection has been causing symptoms for several days before treatment or if you have a fever, it may take longer to feel better.

It’s important to get prompt treatment for a UTI. If the infection is not treated, it could make you very sick and damage your kidneys. If the infection spreads to your blood, it can be life-threatening. If you are very sick, you may need to spend a day or two in the hospital and get antibiotics by IV.

How can I take care of myself?

  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. If you were prescribed an antibiotic, take all of it as prescribed, even if you have no symptoms. Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
  • Drink plenty of water each day to cleanse your bladder and urinary tract unless your healthcare provider has told you to limit how much fluid you drink.
  • A hot water bottle or an electric heating pad on a low setting can help relieve cramps or lower belly or back pain. Keep a cloth between your skin and the hot water bottle or heating pad so that you don’t burn your skin.
  • Soaking in a tub of warm water for 20 to 30 minutes may help relieve pain.

How can I help prevent urinary tract infection?

You can help prevent UTIs if you:

  • Drink enough liquids to keep your urine light yellow in color.
  • Drink a glass of cranberry juice each day. The juice should be real cranberry juice, not a cranberry-flavored drink.
  • Don’t wait to go to the bathroom if you feel the need to urinate.
  • Practice safe sex. Always use latex or polyurethane condoms.
  • Urinate soon after sex.
  • Keep your genital area clean. If you want to have vaginal sex after anal sex, both partners should wash their genitals first.
  • Empty your bladder completely when you urinate.
  • Don’t wear a wet bathing suit for long periods of time.
  • Don’t use irritating cosmetics or chemicals in your genital area. This includes, for example, strong soaps, feminine hygiene sprays, douches, scented tampons, sanitary napkins, or panty liners.
  • Keep your vaginal area clean. Wiping from front to back after using the toilet may help prevent infections. Use mild, unscented soap to wash your genital area gently each time you bathe or shower.
  • Wear underwear that is all cotton or has a cotton crotch. Pantyhose should also have a cotton crotch. Cotton keeps your body cooler than nylon. Change underwear and pantyhose every day.
  • During pregnancy, tell your healthcare provider if you often have urinary tract problems.

If you have reached menopause and are not taking estrogen, prescription estrogen vaginal cream may help prevent bladder infections.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-14
Last reviewed: 2014-05-07
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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