What Women Should Know About Urinary Tract Infections

Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

cranberry juice
istetiana/Getty Images

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection that occurs when bacteria invade the urinary tract system. While the majority of UTIs are not serious, they can often cause severe symptoms, such as pain and/or burning upon urination.

About half of all women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime while many women suffer through several infections. 

What Causes UTIs?

The most common cause of UTIs are bacteria from the bowel that live on the skin near the rectum or in the vagina, and which can spread and enter the urinary tract through the urethra.

Once these bacteria enter the urethra, they travel up, causing infection in the bladder and sometimes other parts of the urinary tract.

Sexual intercourse can often lead to UTIs. During sexual activity, bacteria in the vaginal area are sometimes massaged into the urethra. Women who change sexual partners or have sexual intercourse more frequently may experience UTIs more often than women who are celibate or in monogamous relationships. 

Another cause of UTIs is waiting too long to urinate. The bladder is a muscle that stretches to hold urine and contracts when the urine is released. Waiting too long to urinate can cause the bladder to stretch beyond its capacity. Over time, this can weaken the bladder muscle. When the bladder is weakened, it may not empty completely which may increase the risk of UTIs.

Other factors that also may increase a woman's risk of developing UTI include pregnancy, having urinary tract infections as a child, menopause, or diabetes.

Common Symptoms

Symptoms include a strong urge to urinate that cannot be delayed, followed by a sharp pain or burning sensation in the urethra when the urine is released. Often, very little urine is released, and what is released may be tinged with blood. The urge to urinate recurs quickly and soreness may occur in the lower abdomen, back, or sides.

 This cycle may repeat itself frequently.

When bacteria enter the ureters and spread to the kidneys, symptoms such as back pain, chills, fever, nausea, and vomiting may also occur.

Diagnosing UTIs

The number of bacteria and white blood cells in a urine sample is the basis for diagnosing UTIs. Your urine is examined under a microscope and cultured in a substance that promotes the growth of bacteria. A pelvic exam also may be necessary.

Antibiotics are the usual treatment for UTIs. It's important that all antibiotics be taken as prescribed, and not be discontinued before the full course of antibiotic treatment is complete—even if symptoms disappear soon after beginning the treatment. The present infection may still recur.

An additional urine test may be ordered about a week after completing treatment to be sure the infection is cured.

Tips for Prevention

Good personal hygiene: The most important tip to prevent UTIs, bladder infections, and kidney infections is to practice good personal hygiene. Always wipe from front to back after a bowel movement or urination, and wash the skin around and between the rectum and vagina daily. Washing before and after sexual intercourse also may decrease a woman's risk of UTI.

Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids (water) each day will help flush bacterium out of the urinary system.

Go when you get the urge: Emptying the bladder as soon as the urge to urinate occurs also may help decrease the risk of a UTI.

Go to the bathroom after sex: Urinating before and after sex can flush out any bacteria that may enter the urethra during sexual intercourse.

Get your vitamin C: Vitamin C makes the urine acidic and helps to reduce the number of potentially harmful bacteria in the urinary tract system.

Go for cotton: Wear only panties with a cotton crotch, which allows moisture to escape.

Other materials can trap moisture and create a potential breeding ground for bacteria. Avoid thongs.

Try cranberry juice: Cranberry juice is often said to reduce the frequency of bladder infections, though it should not be considered an actual treatment. Cranberry supplements are available over-the-counter, and many women find they work when a UTI has occurred; however, a physician's diagnosis is still necessary even if cranberry juice or related herbal supplements reduce pain or symptoms. If you do opt for cranberry juice, be sure to look for cranberry juice with little to no added sugar; that means no cranberry juice cocktail.

Try some new positions: If you experience frequent UTIs, changing to sexual positions that cause less friction on the urethra may help. 

Just remember: Although UTIs are painful, they usually are easy to treat once properly diagnosed and only last a few days. When treated promptly and properly, UTIs are rarely serious.


Urinary Tract Infection. Medline Plus.