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Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) in Women

Urinary tract infections in women at a glance

  • A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the system that processes and carries urine from the body, including the kidneys, bladder, ureters and urethra.
  • Women are at greater risk of developing a UTI than men, and one in five women will experience a UTI in their lifetime.
  • UTIs can cause pain and swelling in the urinary tract, signs that a woman should see her doctor.
  • Antibiotics are commonly used for treatment.
  • UTIs can cause kidney damage if left undiagnosed and untreated.

What is a urinary tract infection in women?

The urinary tract is the part of the body that makes and carries urine out of the body. In this system, the kidneys filter waste from the bloodstream and produce urine to expel that waste from the body. Urine from the kidneys passes through ureter tubes to the bladder, which expels urine via the urethra which, in women, is near the top of the vagina.

UTIs most commonly occur in women and affect the bladder and urethra. When bacteria from stool gets into the urinary tract, it can lead to an infection. The infection can occur anywhere in the urinary system but most commonly occurs in the bladder and urethra, as these are closest to the source of the bacteria from the rectum.

If left untreated, a urinary tract infection can lead to recurrent infections, permanent kidney damage and increased risk of delivering premature infants.

Risk of UTIs in women

Women commonly get bladder and kidney infections and often experience more than one infection. UTIs can reccur because initial treatment (often antibiotics) didn’t provide a lasting cure.

Since bacteria from a woman’s rectum is closer to the urethra opening in the vagina than it is to the urethra opening in a man’s penis, women experience more UTIs than men. With a shorter urethra than men, bacteria have a shorter distance to travel to reach a woman’s bladder and cause an infection.

Because of this, being a woman is a risk factor for getting a UTI. Other risk factors include:

  • Being sexually active
  • Using certain types of birth control, including a diaphragm
  • Being postmenopausal
  • Having diabetes or other diseases that affect the immune system
  • Urinary tract abnormalities
  • Blockages such as kidney stones.

Symptoms of UTIs in women

Sometimes urinary tract infections don’t cause symptoms in women, but when they do they may include:

  • Strong urge to urinate
  • Urine that looks cloudy, dark or bloody
  • Pelvic or lower abdomen pain
  • Burning sensation while urinating
  • Intense smelling urine
  • Frequently passing small amounts of urine.

It is important to see a doctor if any of the above symptoms occur.

Diagnosis and treatment of UTIs in women

A doctor first looks for signs of an infection by examining a urine sample under a microscope. If an infection is present, the doctor may also perform a urine culture, a process in which bacteria from infected urine are grown in a lab. Germs can be identified to see which drugs will provide the best treatment. Urinary tract infections are commonly treated with antibiotics, generally taken by mouth.

The length of treatment and the medication depends on the extent of the infection and where it occurs in the urinary tract. At a minimum, medication has to be taken for at least two to three days and possibly for as long as several weeks.

It is important to finish the prescribed cycle of medicine and drink plenty of water to help flush bacteria.

When treated at the first signs of symptoms, urinary tract infections in women usually go away quickly. However, if a woman keeps getting infections, a doctor may run further tests to rule out more serious conditions.

Chronic UTIs

One in five women experience a second UTI in their lifetime. Some women are genetically inclined to UTIs, while others have abnormalities of their urinary tract that make them vulnerable to infection. Certain strains of bacteria can invade the body’s cells and reject antibiotics. This type of bacteria can re-invade and attack again and again. If you have three or more UTIs a year, talk with your doctor about additional treatment options or exploring other health issues that may be causing the recurrent UTIs.

Prevention of UTIs

There are many ways to help prevent UTIs in women.

  • Drink plenty of water to dilute urine
  • Empty your bladder after intercourse to flush bacteria
  • Wipe from front to back to prevent bacteria spreading to the vagina and urethra
  • Avoid feminine products such a douches, powders or deodorant sprays that can irritate the genital area
  • Don’t postpone — urinate when you feel the urge