UTI: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

November 10, 2019

Symptom Guides > Women's Health > UTI: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment


Dr. Jennifer Nadel

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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Many of us have suffered from a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in our lives. If you’ve ever experienced an intense, frequent, and urgent need to pee–even after having just returned from the bathroom–and/or a burning sensation during urination, you’re certainly not alone. UTIs are one of the most common types of infection, responsible for around 8.1 million doctor visits each year.


You may have also heard them called bladder infections, kidney infections, or even urethra infections. These are different types of UTIs, whose names are determined by what part of your urinary tract is infected. Prompt diagnosis and treatment will usually get rid of your UTI and its symptoms within two or three days. To help speed recovery and reduce the chance of complications, this article will explain the different types of UTIs, their varying symptoms, and options for treatment.


In this article, we’ll explore:​

• What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?
• Types of UTIs
• What Causes a UTI?
• UTI Symptoms
• How Is a UTI Diagnosed?
• UTI Risk Factors
• UTI Treatment Options
• Related Conditions
• Preventing UTIs
• When to See a Doctor
• What K Health Can Do to Help

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

As mentioned above, a UTI is an infection that occurs in any part of the urinary tract, which contains the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys. All of these organs work together as our body’s drainage system, making and removing urine, which carries waste and extra fluid from our body. When a UTI occurs it can impact our entire urinary system. This infection can create severe discomfort or pain, especially when urinating.


Most UTIs occur in the lower urinary tract (the bladder and the urethra), though they can spread to the upper urinary tract (the kidneys). The UTIs that target and stay in the lower urinary tract are referred to as simple UTIs. The type of urinary tract infection you have depends on where in your urinary system the bacteria have attached themselves–and reproduced.

Types of UTIs

The 3 types of UTIs are:




  • Urethra infection: Also called urethritis


Missing from this list are the ureters. These are the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. While ureters are rarely infected, they can transfer infectious bacteria from one organ to the other within the urinary tract. If bacteria spreads within our urinary system, it can lead to multiple UTIs and potential health complications.


For instance, an untreated bladder infection could lead to a more serious kidney infection. And an untreated kidney infection could lead to long-term kidney damage or even to an infection outside of the urinary tract. This is why prompt UTI diagnosis and treatment are important–to prevent or stop the spread of bacteria.


As we’ll discuss, each type of UTI has its own causes, symptoms and risks, though many may overlap. This makes it hard to differentiate between them, which is why your doctor may refer to your infection as a general UTI instead of a more specific type. No matter which type you may have, it’s best to seek medical attention at the first sign of any urinary discomfort. Your doctor will most likely treat you with UTI medicine, specifically antibiotics, which usually take effect within 2-3 days.

What Causes a UTI?

In general, UTIs are caused by bacteria, frequently Escherichia coli (E. coli), that enter the body through the urethra and then target the urinary tract. Women’s physiology puts them at a higher risk of getting a UTI than men. This is because a woman’s urethra is not only shorter than a man’s urethra, but it is also located closer to the anus. This makes the path shorter and faster for the bacteria, which is responsible for UTIs 90% of the time, to travel from the anus or vagina (after a bowel movement or sexual activity) to–and through–the urethra to the bladder. From the bladder, the infection, if left untreated, can spread through the ureters to the kidneys.


Though E.coli are overwhelmingly the most common cause of bladder and urethra infections, there are other UTI causes, including:


  • Fungi: Though rare, fungi can also infect the urinary tract.


  • Genetics: Abnormalities in the shape of your urinary tract or simply inheriting certain genes can make you more likely to get UTIs.


  • Other bacteria: Other bacteria, such as staphylococcus infections, can cause infections through the urethra and sometimes even infect the kidneys from the bloodstream.


UTI Symptoms

In general, most UTI symptoms tend to involve urination. However, there are other symptoms that affect your mid-section. Depending on the type of UTI you have and its severity, you may experience one, many, or none of the following symptoms:


  • An intense, persistent and frequent urge to urinate
  • A burning sensation or pain when urinating
  • Passing frequent, small amounts of urine
  • Cloud-colored urine
  • Blood in the urine
  • Strong or foul-smelling urine
  • Pelvic pain (UTI symptom for women only)
  • Pain in the side, lower abdomen, or back
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fever


Each type of UTI may have more specific signs and symptoms. Here are the most common signs and symptoms according to the following UTIs:



Bladder Infection (Cystitis)


  • Pelvic pressure
  • Muscle aches and/or discomfort in the lower abdomen
  • Frequent, painful urination
  • Blood in urine



Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis)


  • Upper back and side pain
  • High fever
  • Chills and/or shaking
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting


Symptoms of a bladder infection may also be present at the same time

Again, since some of the symptoms may overlap, it can be difficult to determine which part of your urinary tract is infected. It can also be easy to mistake the symptoms for another type of ailment. That’s why it’s best to visit your doctor for a professional diagnosis at the first sign of urinary discomfort.

How Is a UTI Diagnosed?

Your doctor will start by asking about your symptoms and conduct a physical exam to check for tenderness in your pelvis, back and sides. The next step is to test your urine, with a urine sample and/or a urine culture. These urine tests will help determine whether you have a UTI and what type of bacteria is causing it. This diagnosis will help figure out what type of treatment will be most effective. After all, some bacteria are resistant to certain types of antibiotics.


If you are experiencing frequent UTIs, your doctor may advise an imaging study of your urinary tract. These tests can help determine if there is an abnormality in your urinary tract. In cases of recurrent UTIs, your doctor may perform a cystoscopy. This uses a thin, long tube that has a lens. It’s inserted into your urethra and bladder for an internal exam.

UTI Risk Factors

It’s estimated that more than 50% of all women will experience a UTI during their lifetime, with 20-30% experiencing recurrent UTIs. In contrast, 1 in 10 men will get a UTI once in their lifetime. Typically, older men, aged 70 and above, have a higher risk of getting a UTI, since they are more likely to have difficulties emptying their bladders.


There are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of developing a UTI at any age. These include:


  • Diabetes: Diabetes especially if uncontrolled, can weaken the body's immune system to fight off infection.


  • Sexual activity: Any sexual activity can cause bacteria in the urinary tract, which can potentially lead to infection.


  • Spinal cord injuries: Such an injury, or other nerve damage, can make it difficult to empty your bladder regularly and completely.


  • Menopause: This stage may cause changes in the bacteria that live inside a woman’s vagina.


  • Urinary catheters: When this tube is placed in the urethra and bladder to drain urine, it can introduce bacteria into the urinary tract.



  • Urinary tract blockage: The presence of kidney stones, a tumor, enlarged prostate, or any other condition can block the flow of urine.


  • Recent urinary tract procedures: Surgery or a urinary tract exam that involves medical instruments and can increase the risk of developing an infection.


  • Certain forms of birth control: Spermicides or unlubricated condoms may cause skin irritations that allow bacteria to invade.


  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics can affect the balance of the natural microflora in your urinary tract.


  • Pregnancy: Pregnant women have a higher risk of UTI-related complications, like developing a kidney infection. Hormonal and anatomic changes make it easier for bacteria to spread from the bladder through the ureters to the kidneys. A kidney infection during pregnancy can lead to serious infections in the mother and early labor and/or low birth weight in infants.

UTI Treatment Options

With regard to UTI medicine, antibiotics are usually the first–and most recommended–course of treatment for UTIs. The type of antibiotics that are prescribed and their dosage depend on the type of UTI-causing bacteria found in the patient’s urine and severity of the infection. If you have a UTI, the right antibiotic treatment is the best and fastest way to get rid of it. Symptoms usually tend to subside within 1-3 days after you start the medication, and there are pain relievers that your doctor can also prescribe to help with immediate relief. Here are three common types of treatment:



Treatment for a Simple UTI


Simple UTIs are those that occur in the urethra and bladder in the lower urinary tract. It’s important to take the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if the symptoms subside after a couple of days. Your doctor may also prescribe pain medication to ease any pain or burning when urinating until the antibiotics take effect.



Treatment for Frequent UTIs


If you have frequent UTIs, your doctor may recommend other kinds of treatment:


  • Low doses of antibiotics may be given for an initial six months, though sometimes longer.


  • One dose of antibiotics may be given after sexual intercourse if your UTI is related to sexual activity.


  • Vaginal estrogen therapy may be prescribed for postmenopausal women.



Treatment for Severe UTIs


For severe UTIs, like complications related to kidney infections, or UTIs associated with pregnancy, you may need to be treated in a hospital where you could receive intravenous antibiotics.



Home Remedy Treatments for UTIs


While doctors will almost always recommend antibiotic treatment for UTIs, there are also complementary home remedies for UTI pain and discomfort relief that can help until the antibiotics kick in. These may include:


  • Drinking plenty of water (and/or cranberry juice) to dilute your urine, which will help you urinate more, thereby helping to rid the urinary tract of the bacteria.


  • Avoiding coffee, alcohol, and drinks that contain citrus juices or caffeine, which can all irritate your bladder and/or intensify the frequent/urgent need to urinate.


  • Using a warm (not hot) heating pad on your abdomen to ease bladder pressure or discomfort.

Related Conditions

Most of the time, especially when treated promptly and fully, lower urinary tract infections can clear up within a few days. However, if a UTI is left untreated, or if treatment is delayed, serious complications can develop. It is possible for a UTI to run its course and go away on its own, but there is a chance that infection from an untreated UTI can spread, so it’s in your best interest to see your doctor to get treated. Such UTI complications may include:


  • Recurrent UTIs: Women are especially at high risk.


  • Long-term or permanent kidney damage: This can develop from an acute or chronic kidney infection, which was caused by an untreated UTI.


  • Pregnancy-related risks: If a UTI occurs during pregnancy, there is an increased risk of delivering low-birthweight or premature infants.


  • Sepsis: Sepsis is caused by your body’s reaction to an infection. It can be life-threatening, especially if the infection spreads from the kidneys into the bloodstream.

Preventing UTIs

There are many factors that can encourage bacteria to grow–and spread–within your urinary tract. Therefore, being aware of them may help us change our behavior and, possibly, prevent future UTIs. Here are some UTI prevention steps:


  • Drink plenty of fluids


  • Urinate regularly (don’t hold in urine)



  • Wipe from front to back after urination and bowel movements

When to See a Doctor

Since most UTIs are easily treated, it’s best to see your doctor at the very first sign of symptoms. Getting an accurate diagnosis is important to rule out any other disease, like a sexually transmitted disease, which can have similar symptoms. Some patients may need their urine to be cultured to determine the correct antibiotics. In addition to wanting fast relief for your symptoms, immediate treatment will help prevent any medical complications that can arise when infection spreads, namely a kidney infection.

What K Health Can Do to Help

When you have a UTI, all you want is relief. With K Health’s virtual diagnosis tool, you can quickly determine whether the symptoms you feel merit a doctor’s visit. Plus, if you are mid- or post-treatment and still experiencing UTI symptoms, our doctors can help you determine if you have a recurring UTI, or whether it has spread and developed into something more serious. Our doctors are also available to help you learn how to ease your symptoms and what you can do to help prevent a future UTI.

“Most of the time, especially when treated promptly and fully, lower urinary tract infections clear up rather quickly”

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Dr. Jennifer Nadel

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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