The urinary tract comprises the kidneys, the bladder, the ureters which connect them, and the urethra. This system is prone to infection; it’s most common, and painful, in the bladder and urethra, but when a UTI spreads to the kidneys it can cause serious and permanent damage. Infectious microbes can enter the urinary tract through the urethra in several ways. Often these are gut bacteria expelled as waste in stool. Bladder infections can be caused by sexual intercourse, but many have no easily discoverable cause. Similarly, while STIs can lie behind infections of the urethra, it is not the cause of many of them. Women are particularly prone to UTIs, because the female urethra is typically shorter, but they can happen to anyone.
UTIs are sometimes asymptomatic. When there are symptoms, one of the most prominent is a burning sensation when urinating. Unfortunately, another symptom is frequent urination and a persistent urge to urinate. The appearance of urine can also be a sign. Cloudiness is an indicator, as is blood in the urine– it will be red or pink, or sometimes dark. UTIs also can cause urine to have an unusually strong smell. Women with UTIs may experience pelvic pain, though men experience it in the rectum. Bladder infections can cause pain in the lower abdomen.
Fortunately, UTIs are preventable. One important tip is to drink plenty of fluids. This means more frequent urination, which gets bacteria out before they can cause problems, and also dilutes urine, weakening the bacteria. However, citrus, alcohol, and caffeine can irritate the bladder and actually aggravate incipient infections. Wiping front to back can prevent stool from getting into the urinary tract, where it can introduce E. coli and other microbes. For women, it should be noted that douches and other caustic chemicals don’t help; in fact, they can irritate the urethra and change the environment in a way that encourages the growth of infections. These products should be avoided.
Antibiotics are a common medical treatment for UTIs, though recent studies say antibiotics can actually raise the risk of a recurrence– patients who’d taken a long course of antibiotics were 25 percent more likely to have another infection within a year. Beyond that, cranberry juice is a well-known and, anecdotally, effective preventative measure, though how it fares as a treatment is less clear. It’s particularly effective in adult women.