Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a common type of infection caused by bacteria (most often E. coli) that travel up the urethra to the bladder. A bladder infection is called cystitis. If bacterial infection spreads to the kidneys and ureters, the condition is called pyelonephritis. Cystitis is considered a lower urinary tract infection. Pyelonephritis is an upper urinary tract infection and is much more serious.
Women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections than men, and their infections tend to recur. One reason is that the urethra (the tube that carries urine away from the bladder) is shorter in women than in men. Frequent sexual intercourse also increases a woman’s risk of developing UTIs. Contraceptive spermicides and diaphragm use are other risk factors. When women reach menopause, the decrease in estrogen thins the lining of the urinary tract, which increases susceptibility to bacterial infections.
Pregnancy does not increase the risk of getting a urinary tract infection but it can increase the risk of developing a serious infection that could potentially endanger the mother and fetus. Pregnant women should report any symptoms of UTIs to their doctors, and should get screened for asymptomatic bacteriuria (presence of significant numbers of bacteria but no symptoms).
Symptoms of urinary tract infections may include:
- Strong urge to urinate frequently, even immediately after the bladder is emptied
- Painful burning sensation when urinating
- Discomfort, pressure, or bloating in the lower abdomen
- Pain in the pelvic area or back
- Cloudy or bloody urine, which may have a strong smell
A urine test can determine if these symptoms are caused by a bacterial infection. Antibiotics are used to treat UTIs. Older people may have a urinary tract infection but have few or no symptoms.
Antibiotics are used to treat UTIs. Most cases of UTIs clear up after a few days of drug treatment, but more severe cases may require several weeks of treatment.
Review Date: 06/17/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.