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A urinary tract infection is an infection of any part of the urinary tract, which includes the bladder, kidneys, ureters (tubes that connects the kidneys to the bladder), and the urethra (the tube that allows the bladder to be emptied). Infections of the bladder or the urethra are the most common.
Most often, a urinary tract infection, or UTI, occurs because bacteria enter the urethra and migrate up to the bladder, where they multiply.
Bladder infections are typically caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, which are common bacteria in the human gut, according to the Mayo Clinic. Infections of the urethra can be caused by E. coli, or by sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes or chlamydia.
Bacteria in the bladder can also move up to the kidneys and cause a kidney infection (known as pyelonephritis), which can cause permanent kidney damage. An untreated UTI in the bladder can lead to such an infection.
Symptoms of a UTI include:
- A strong and frequent urge to urinate often, even after you've just emptied your bladder
- Pain or burning while urinating
- Cloudy or bloody urine
- Pain in the lower abdomen or back (pelvic pain for women, rectal pain for men)
Signs of a kidney infection may include:
- Chills or night sweats
- Pain in the side, back or groin area
- Flushed or reddened skin
- Nausea and vomiting
In the elderly, mental changes or confusions are often the only signs of a UTI, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Women are more likely to get a UTI. One reason for this is that women have a shorter urethra than men, and it is closer to the anus. Sexual activity also increase's a woman's risk of UTI.
The drop in estrogen levels that women experience after menopause also can make the urinary tract more vulnerable to infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Blockages of the urinary tract, such as a kidney stone or enlarged prostate, can block the flow of urine and increase the risk of UTI.
People with an impaired immune system, such as those with diabetes and other condition, have a decreased ability to fight off infections, which can increase the risk of UTI.
People who have a urinary catheter are also at increased risk for UTI.
Most urinary tract infections are treated with antibiotics to prevent it from spreading to the kidneys. Patients should finish their prescribed antibiotics, even if symptoms disappear, because not finishing a course of antibiotics may allow the infection to return later. Symptoms of a bladder infection usually go away within one to two days after starting antibiotics.
Women with recurrent UTIs may be told to take antibiotics after sexual activity to prevent infection. Longer courses of antibiotics, or stronger doses may also be required for people with recurrent infections.
A more serve infection of the kidneys may require hospital treatment. Hospital treatment involves fluids and antibiotics through a vein. Some people may need surgery if the infection is caused by a problem with the structure of the urinary tract, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Ways to help prevent UTIs include drinking plenty of water and urinating after intercourse. Women who've gone through menopause may use estrogen cream around the vagina to reduce the risk of infections, the NIH says.
A 2012 review suggested that cranberries may help prevent UTIs, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Cranberries may interfere with the way bacteria attach to urinary tract cells.