Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Urinary Tract Infections

Medically Reviewed By Stacy A. Henigsman, DO
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A urinary tract infection (UTI) can occur anywhere in the urinary tract. This includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Seeking treatment early — when you first experience symptoms of a UTI — can save you from discomfort or pain and prevent a more serious infection.

Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of UTIs, what can cause them, and how to treat them.

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. This article uses the terms “female” and “male” to refer to sex that was assigned at birth. 

Learn more about the differences between sex and gender here.

What are the symptoms of UTIs?

a woman is drinking water outside
Studio Firma/Stocksy United

UTI symptoms result from the bladder and urethra lining becoming inflamed and irritated from the infection. If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have a UTI:

  • burning, stinging, pain, or cramping with urination 
  • cloudy, bloody, or foul smelling urine 
  • feeling like your bladder does not fully empty after you urinate
  • having a frequent urge to urinate, but not much urine comes out
  • leaking urine 
  • pressure or pain in your pelvic area or lower belly 

Call your doctor if you think you have a UTI. They may want to test a urine sample to determine the exact cause of your infection.

What can cause UTIs? What are the risk factors for UTIs?

Normally, urine is sterile. This means that there are no microorganisms in it. UTIs occur when bacteria get into the urethra, which is the opening of the urinary tract, and travel to the bladder or beyond.

Females are more prone to UTIs than males because their urethras are closer to their rectums. Bacteria are plentiful in the rectal area. Females also have shorter urethras than males, which allows bacteria to reach the bladder more easily. 

In addition to being female, factors that increase your risk of developing a UTI include:

  • being postmenopausal, as losing estrogen can cause changes that make UTIs more likely
  • being sexually active, as sexual intercourse can introduce bacteria into the urethra 
  • having a health condition, such as kidney stones or a bladder condition, that makes it difficult to fully empty your bladder 
  • having diabetes, as diabetes reduces your ability to fight infections
  • using a diaphragm for birth control, as diaphragms can make it harder to completely empty your bladder because they push against the urethra
  • using spermicides or taking certain antibiotics, which can change the typical bacterial environment of the vaginal opening
  • wiping from back to front, as this spreads bacteria from the rectal area to the urethra

Learn more about how your kidneys work here.

How do doctors diagnose UTIs?

Doctors may diagnose a UTI and prescribe treatment by taking a history, completing a physical exam, and asking you about your symptoms.

They may also ask you to provide them with a small sample of urine. They will then send this to a laboratory for testing, where a technician will examine the sample under a microscope and check for signs of infection. Specifically, they may check for white blood cells, bacteria, or yeast.

How do you treat UTIs?

Treatment for UTIs may involve a combination of antibiotics and increased fluid intake. You should contact a doctor if you think you may have a UTI, as you will get the fastest, most effective treatment. Getting prompt treatment also reduces the risk of the UTI progressing into more serious complications.

Antibiotics

Since bacteria cause UTIs, you will need an antibiotic to treat them. Usually, a short course lasting a few days is all you need to treat a simple UTI. Your symptoms should improve after a couple of days, but it is important to take the whole course of antibiotics.

Skipping doses or not taking the full course could cause the UTI to come back, and it may be harder to treat.

Your doctor may also give you medications to numb your urinary tract until the antibiotic starts working. Your urine may turn orange while you take this drug. 

Fluids

Drink plenty of fluids while you are receiving treatment for a UTI.

Water is the best choice. Try to avoid beverages containing caffeine or alcohol. They can irritate the bladder and cause dehydration.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, drinking cranberry juice is not effective for treating an existing bladder infection.

Frequent or recurring UTIs

If you get frequent UTIs — defined as three or more in a year — talk with your doctor. You may need preventive antibiotics. This may mean taking a daily antibiotic or just taking one when you know you are at risk, such as after sex.

Other prevention strategies include:

  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • not holding your urine for long periods
  • urinating after sex
  • using lubrication during sex

What are the complications of UTIs?

Lower UTIs can lead to kidney infections, which are more serious. These can affect anyone, but pregnant people are prone to kidney infections stemming from bladder infections.

Serious complications from UTIs are rare if you follow the advice of your doctor. This may include taking antibiotics exactly as your doctor has prescribed them and finishing the entire course of treatment, even after your symptoms have eased. Not doing so can raise your risk of developing another infection.

Learn more about kidney infections here.

When should you contact a doctor for UTIs?

If you think you have a UTI, you should contact a doctor. This is so that you can receive effective, timely treatment and lower your risk of developing further complications.

If you notice any blood in your urine, you should contact a doctor as soon as possible. This can be a symptom of a UTI, but it may also indicate a different condition affecting the urinary tract.

You should also contact a doctor if you are receiving treatment for a UTI, but your symptoms are not going away as your doctor suggested they would.

Learn more about when to contact a doctor for a UTI here.

Other frequently asked questions

The following frequently asked questions have been reviewed by Dr. Stacy A. Henigsman, D.O.

What is the best antibiotic for a UTI?

Nitrofurantoin, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, and fluoroquinolone are generally considered first-line antibiotics for the treatment of UTIs.

How does a male get rid of a UTI?

Doctors generally recommend antibiotics to people of any sex and gender with a UTI. Viral UTIs require medications called antivirals.

Will a UTI go away on its own?

It is possible for a UTI to go away on its own. However, the risk of further complications from an untreated UTI — including worsening symptoms of infection — means that you should seek medical treatment if you notice any symptoms of a UTI.

What is the fastest home remedy for a UTI?

It is important to stay hydrated when you have a UTI, but you should seek medical treatment and not rely solely on home remedies to treat it. Research exploring the effectiveness of home remedies such as cranberry juice has seen mixed results.

Can I get over-the-counter medications for a UTI?

In the United States, you need a prescription to obtain antibiotics that can treat a UTI. You can take over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol to treat the symptoms the condition causes, such as pain, but these will not treat the underlying infection.

Summary

UTIs are common. They are especially prevalent among females, though anyone can experience them. They can affect any part of the urinary tract, including the bladder, the urethra, and the kidneys. UTIs can cause pain in the abdomen, a burning pain during urination, cloudy urine, and a frequent urge to urinate.

If you think you have a UTI, contact a doctor soon. This can help you receive timely and effective treatment for uncomfortable symptoms and reduce the risk of potentially serious complications.

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Medical Reviewer: Stacy A. Henigsman, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 May 24
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