Urinary tract infection: All you need to know about risk factors, symptoms of a UTI and when to seek medical help
Your age, habits or health conditions can make a UTI occurrence more likely, and women are at higher risk than men
Reports suggest that actress Tanya Roberts, the former Bond girl and That ‘70s Show star, may have died from a urinary tract infection (UTI). She is said to have been suffering from a UTI, which spread to her kidney and gallbladder.
What is a urinary tract infection?
UTIs are common infections that happen when bacteria, often from the skin or rectum, enter the urethra and infect the urinary tract. Bladder infections are the most common type of UTI, but any part of your urinary tract can become infected — the urethra (a condition called urethritis), bladder (a condition called cystitis), ureters and kidneys (a condition called pyelonephritis).
What causes it?
Our urine typically does not contain bacteria. Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract through the urethra and begin to multiply in the bladder. The urinary system is designed to keep out bacteria, but these defenses can fail. When that happens, bacteria may take hold and grow into an infection in the urinary tract.
“Most of the time a bladder infection is caused by bacteria that are normally found in your bowel. The bladder has several systems to prevent infection. For example, urination most often flushes out bacteria before it reaches the bladder. Sometimes your body can’t fight the bacteria and the bacteria cause an infection,” explains the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), which is part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
What are the risk factors?
Your age, habits or health conditions can make a UTI more likely. Some people are at higher risk of getting a UTI. UTIs are more common in women than men mainly due to differences in anatomy: urethras are shorter and closer to the rectum in women, which makes it easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract. Infection limited to your bladder can be painful and annoying. However, serious consequences can occur if a UTI spreads to your kidneys.
Other factors that can increase the risk of UTIs include a previous UTI, sexual activity, and especially a new sexual partner, pregnancy, changes in the bacteria that live inside the vagina (vaginal flora), for example, caused by menopause, using certain types of birth control, such as spermicide, age (older adults and young children are more likely to get UTIs), poor hygiene and structural problems in the urinary tract, such as prostate enlargement. People who cannot urinate on their own and use a tube (catheter) to urinate have an increased risk of UTIs.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a bladder infection can include pain or a burning feeling while urinating, frequent urination, feeling the need to urinate despite having an empty bladder, bloody urine and pressure or cramping in the groin or lower abdomen. Symptoms of a kidney infection can include chills, fever, lower back pain or pain in the side of your back, and nausea or vomiting.
What are the complications?
If infections in the lower urinary tract, such as bladder infections, are not treated, they can lead to kidney infections. “Complications of a UTI may include recurrent infections, especially in women who experience two or more UTIs in a six-month period or four or more within a year, permanent kidney damage from an acute or chronic kidney infection due to an untreated UTI and sepsis, a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection, especially if the infection works its way up your urinary tract to your kidneys,” says Mayo Clinic.
When should you seek care?
The NIDDK advises people to see a doctor immediately if they have symptoms of a bladder infection, “especially if you have severe pain in your back near your ribs or your lower abdomen, along with vomiting and nausea, fever or other symptoms that may indicate a kidney infection.”
How is it treated?
Your doctor will determine if you have a UTI by asking about symptoms, doing a physical examination and ordering urine tests, if needed. Most UTIs are treated with antibiotics. “However, if it isn’t treated or if you stop the medication early, this type of infection can lead to a more serious infection, like a kidney infection,” cautions the Cleveland Clinic. Antibiotics can cause side effects, ranging from minor reactions, such as a rash, to very serious health problems, such as antibiotic-resistant infections. Health experts advise calling the doctor if a person develops any side effects while taking the antibiotic. While most cases of UTIs can be treated outside the hospital, some cases may need to be treated in the hospital.
Can it be prevented?
Several steps can be taken to prevent or reduce your chances of getting a UTI, which includes drinking plenty of water daily, urinating after sexual activity, not holding your urine for long periods and practicing good hygiene. Experts advise talking to one’s doctor to understand what measures can be taken and if a person has recurrent UTIs.