Telehealth Doctors and Psychologists Australia

Updated 10 September 2021

What is a Urinary Tract Infection

Lady holding tummy
A urinary tract infection, sometimes referred to as a UTI,  is an infection of any part of the urinary system, which includes the urethra, bladder, ureters and kidneys. UTIs are very common, particularly in women, older people and babies. A Urinary Tract Infection of the urethra is known as urethritis while that of the bladder is cystitis and an infection of the kidneys is called pyelonephritis. However, the majority of UTI cases involve an infection which is confined to the bladder. On average, 1 in 2 women will contract a UTI while 1 in 20 men would be infected by a UTI during their lifetime. While UTIs that affect the lower urinary tract can result in a lot of discomfort, serious complications can arise if the Urinary Tract Infection is able to spread from a person's bladder to their kidneys through the ureters. One of the most common bacteria causing UTI is Escherichia coli or E.coli which is one of the bacteria that thrives in your gut. This bacterium is usually inadvertently transmitted to your urethra directly from your anus during a toilet break and when good toilet habits are not carefully observed. Fortunately, most UTIs can be successfully treated and managed with the use of antibiotics. However, it is always better to adopt a "prevention is better than cure" approach when dealing with UTIs, in order to avoid complications, a long-term treatment plan and the risk of recurring infections.

Symptoms of UTIs

Urinary Tract Infections have many symptoms which may also vary depending on the type of microorganisms that are responsible for the infection. However, the most common signs of a UTI include;
  • A scalding or burning sensation when you urinate
  • Discomfort in your lower abdominal region
  • Cloudy, dark, smelly or bloody urine
  • A feeling of a full bladder even after urinating
  • More frequent urination, sometimes with only a few drops 
If the UTI has spread to your kidneys, the symptoms that can manifest include;
  • Back or loin pain
  • Pain in your lower abdomen
  • Fever or chills
  • Nausea or vomiting.

Causes of a Urinary Tract Infection

To cause infection of the urinary tract, a micro-organism usually needs to enter the urinary tract via the urethra or blood stream. Most of the time the cause of a UTI is a micro-organism entering the urethra from the anus.

Risk factors for developing a  Urinary Tract Infection

Urinary Tract Infections within the bladder (cystitis) is not as complicated and as serious as an infection of the kidneys (pyelonephritis). There are certain groups of people that are more prone to a UTI infection than others. Some of these UTI high risk groups include;
  • Women have a high risk of contracting UTI because the length of their urethra is normally just 4 cm which means that the bacteria causing UTIs do not have to travel far before getting to and infecting the bladder.
  • Diabetic patients are also at a high risk of contracting UTIs because of their compromised immune systems.
  • Babies with a urinary system birth defect are also at risk of contracting Urinary Tract Infections.
  • Having an enlarged prostate due to an illness can increase the vulnerability of a person to UTIs. The enlarged prostate gland is capable of preventing a person's bladder from passing all urine completely and the partial emptying of the bladder increases the person's risk of contracting a UTI.
  • People with underlying health issues that force them to use urinary catheters are also prone to UTIs. These people are unable to empty their bladder unaided and this leaves them vulnerable to UTIs.

How is a UTI Diagnosed?  

When you consult with your doctor on the possibility of contracting a UTI, your doctor would normally ask you questions in order to better understand your symptoms. Your doctor may also perform a physical examination of your lower abdominal area and groin. In addition to this, you may be required to provide a urine sample for testing.

Treatment of UTI

A prescribed course of antibiotics is the normal treatment for most UTIs. When your doctor prescribes a course of antibiotics, you will need to make sure that the course is fully completed and this is regardless of whether you are no longer experiencing UTI symptoms. If you do not complete the antibiotics course, there is a strong chance that the bacteria causing your UTI would not have been completely cleared from your bladder with the chance of recurrence.

Recovery and the Prevention of UTIs

If you follow and complete your course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor, you should recover fully from your UTI. UTIs confined to the bladder are usually not that serious, with early detection and a prescribed course of antibiotic treatment usually resulting in a full recovery without any complications. However sometimes, especially when UTIs are left untreated, the infection can spread to the kidney causing Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis) or to the blood causing blood poisoning (Septicaemia) requiring  hospitalisation. To avoid contracting a UTI and the complications that can come with an infection, it is always important to prevent an infection. Here are a few preventive measures that you can practice today;
  • Make sure to drink plenty of fluids (especially water) everyday, as this will help to flush out any bacteria in your urinary system.
  • Once you feel the urge to urinate, make sure to go to the toilet instead of holding on.
  • It is important to always practice good toilet habits. Wipe your anus from front to back after defecating, as this prevents bacteria lurking in and around your anus from getting to and entering your urethra.
  • To flush out the bacteria that could have passed into your urethra while you were having sex, make sure to empty your bladder after sex.
  • Bacteria thrive under warm, moist conditions. So it is important to wear loose-fitting, cotton underwear or clothing to ensure that your groin and buttocks area is dry. Stay clear of nylon underwear and avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing as they can retain moisture and provide an ideal environment for bacteria to grow.
  • Women should avoid using spermicide or a diaphragm for birth control, as they provide a perfect environment for bacteria to grow. Also, use lubricated condoms that do not have spermicide instead of spermicidal or unlubricated condoms which can cause irritation and can also aid the growth of bacteria.