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Urinary tract infections: A common problem for women

Because of anatomy, women are prone to urinary tract infections. They can range from mild to severe, and in some women they recur often.

For most women, a urinary tract infection (UTI) is a minor and short-lived annoyance. For others, these infections are a recurring and painful problem.

A UTI is usually not a serious illness and can be treated with antibiotics. But it's a good idea to know the symptoms. That way, you can see your doctor at the first sign of infection and help ensure that it's cleared quickly, and without complications.

Anatomy of the urinary tract

Your urinary system consists of four major parts.

The kidneys remove liquid waste from your blood, which becomes urine. The urine travels from those organs through tubes called the ureters to be stored in your bladder. When it's time to empty your bladder, the urine passes out of your body through a short tube called the urethra.

Your urinary tract has built-in defenses against infection. Even the act of urination itself works to wash bacteria from the body.

Unfortunately, infections happen. And they happen more often in women than in men, mostly due to anatomy.

What causes infections?

Compared to men, a woman's urethra is not very long. It's a short trip for bacteria to climb up into the bladder.

A woman's urethra is also near the rectum and vagina, both of which contain bacteria.

And germs can be pushed into the urethra during sexual intercourse, according to the Office on Women's Health (OWH).

Often, the bacteria that infect the urinary tract are Escherichia coli, or E. coli, which normally live in the colon. Sometimes the culprit is a microorganism such as chlamydia.

UTI symptoms

UTIs can come on quickly, and they usually announce their presence with at least one of the following symptoms:

  • A frequent, even consistent need to urinate, often with very little urine coming out.
  • Pain and burning on urination.
  • Urine that appears cloudy or even has tinges of blood in it.
  • An overall malaise and fatigue.

If any of these symptoms are accompanied by a fever or back pain, that might indicate that the infection has traveled all the way to the kidneys. A kidney infection is a more serious illness than a UTI and can require hospitalization, so it's important to see your doctor right away if you have any of the above symptoms.

Diagnosis, treatment and prevention

Your doctor can find out whether you have a UTI with a simple urine test. If you do have a UTI, you may need to take antibiotics.

You can also help prevent UTIs by taking the following steps recommended by OWH and other experts:

  • Drink plenty of water daily to help flush your system.
  • Urinate when you feel the need, instead of holding it.
  • Always wipe from front to back after using the toilet.
  • Urinate after sex, if you can.
  • Avoid using products such as feminine sprays or douches.

Some medical experts also recommend drinking cranberry juice—which may help prevent bacterial growth—to prevent (though not to treat) UTIs, though studies have shown mixed results.

Reviewed 8/17/2022

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