Although the urinary tract has built-in safeguards to help ward off infections, bacteria and other microorganisms still manage to get in and cause infections. Urinary tract infections are a serious health problem, affecting millions of people each year. Only respiratory tract infections occur more often.
The urinary tract includes all the organs that collect and store urine and transport it out of your body, usually approximately 1½ quarts each day.
The kidneys collect wastes and extra water from your blood to produce urine.
The ureters are narrow tubes that carry the urine from the kidneys to the bladder.
The bladder stores urine and squeezes it out when full.
The urethra is another tube that carries the urine out of your body.
Most UTIs are not linked to sex
UTIs occur when microorganisms, usually bacteria from the digestive tract, cling to the opening of the urethra and begin to multiply. Most infections come from the Escherichia coli bacteria, which normally live in the colon. Usually, your body is able to remove the bacteria and there are no symptoms. Some people, however, seem to be more prone to developing UTIs, particularly women and older people.
Other microorganisms can also cause UTIs. Chlamydia and Mycoplasma can be sexually transmitted and cause UTIs in both men and women. Infections with these microorganisms require treatment of both sexual partners.
Another common source of UTIs is catheters, or tubes placed in the bladder to release urine from people who cannot do so themselves because they are unconscious or critically ill. Despite efforts to keep catheters sterile and remove them as soon as possible, bacteria on catheters can cause UTIs.
People with any disorder that causes immune system changes, such as diabetes, also have a higher risk of UTIs. Infections may also occur in infants born with abnormalities of the urinary tract, which sometimes need to be corrected by surgery.
Most exhibit symptoms
Not everyone who develops a UTI has symptoms, but most people get at least some. See a doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
• burning feeling when you urinate
• frequent or intense need to urinate, but only a small amount of urine is released
• pain in your back or lower abdomen
• milky, cloudy, dark or even reddish urine if blood is present
• unusual smelling urine
• fever or chills or just feeling tired, shaky or washed out
To find out if you do have a UTI, a sample of urine will be tested for bacteria and red and white blood cells. Additional tests may also be ordered.
UTIs are treated with antibacterial drugs. The particular drug and the length of time it must be taken depend on the type of bacteria found and previous experience with UTIs. Women are more likely to have repeat infections and may benefit from special treatment plans.
Keeping UTIs from coming back
Changing some of your daily habits may help you avoid UTIs. The Medical Society of the State of New York encourages health habits that prevent or reduce the risk of illness and injury.
Drink plenty of fluid to flush bacteria from your system. Aim for six to eight glasses per day.
Urinate when you first feel the need. Bacteria can grow when urine stays in the bladder too long.
Urinate soon after sex. This act can flush away bacteria that may have entered your urethra during sex.
Always wipe from front to back, especially after a bowel movement, to keep bacteria away from the urethra.
Wear cotton underwear and loose fitting clothes so that air can circulate and keep the area dry.
Drink cranberry juice or take vitamin C. Both increase the acid in urine so bacteria cannot grow easily.
For additional information, visit the websites of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at www.niddk.nih.gov or the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org.