Most of us have been there; you run to the bathroom desperate to urinate but almost nothing comes out. The little bit of urine you do pass is cloudy, and burns as you pass it. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. More than 11 million women are treated for a urinary tract infection every year in the US, making UTIs the most common bacterial infection in adult women.

What causes UTIs?

The urinary tract consists of:

  • kidneys – which produce urine
  • ureters – which transport urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • bladder – which stores urine
  • urethra – which transports urine from the bladder out of the body

Urinary tract infections most commonly involve the bladder (cystitis) and kidneys (pyelonephritis). 90-95% of UTIs are caused by the bacterium Escherichia coli. E. coli is found in the bowel of most individuals, and is often present at the anal opening and near the opening to the urethra. Bacteria can enter the urethra and travel upwards to infect the urinary bladder. The urethra is much shorter in women than in men, making women more likely to suffer from bladder infections. In some cases, bacteria can continue upwards from the urinary bladder, through the ureters, to infect the kidneys.

Do I have a UTI?

The only way to know for sure if you have a urinary tract infection is for your doctor to test a sample of your urine. However, you can be on the lookout for some common symptoms of bladder infection, including:

  • burning or pain when you urinate
  • urine that is cloudy or smells bad
  • feeling like you need to urinate frequently, but almost nothing comes out
  • soreness in your lower abdomen
  • blood in your urine

If you have a kidney infection, you may have additional symptoms, including fever, pain in your upper back and nausea.

How is a UTI treated?

If you think you may have a bladder infection (cystitis), it is important to seek treatment to help prevent the further spread of bacteria to your kidneys and bloodstream. Bladder infections are usually treated with oral antibiotics taken for 3-7 days. If you have an infection of the kidneys, you may receive an initial dose of antibiotics at the doctor’s office by injection, followed by 7-14 days of antibiotics at home. In some cases, kidney infections are treated with stays in the hospital.

What can I do to decrease my risk of UTIs?

There are a number of steps you can take to decrease your risk of urinary tract infections. Good toileting hygiene requires wiping with toilet paper from the front to the back, to avoid introducing bacteria from the anal area into the urethra. Urinating both before and after sexual intercourse helps to clear any bacteria out of the urethra, making it less likely that bacteria will reach the bladder.

When one drinks plenty of water this results in your body making more urine. This leads to more frequent emptying of the bladder and more frequent flushing of the urethra, helping to clear bacteria from the urinary tract. It is best to avoid bubble baths, bath oils and perfumed hygiene products, which can irritate the urinary tract, making it more susceptible to bacteria.

If you have a history of UTIs, you can consider trying vitamin C tablets (one to four a day); this acidifies the urine and may make it more difficult for e. coli to attack the urinary tract, but the experimental evidence is still somewhat inconclusive. If you suffer from frequent or recurrent UTIs, it is best to seek the advice of your doctor or midwife.