Lisa Savage, MD


Article: Urinary Tract Infections

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Many women have a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point during their lives. Some women will have repeat infections and may have them often. Most UTIs are not serious. They are easy to treat with antibiotics and symptoms can be relieved quickly.

A Woman's Urinary Tract

The urinary tract is made up of the following parts:

  • * Two kidneys, which produce urine
  • * Two tubes called ureters that take urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • * The bladder, where urine is stored
  • * The urethra, which carries urine from the bladder out of the body

Types of Urinary Tract Infections

Most UTIs start in the lower urinary tract. Bacteria can enter through the urethra and spread upward to the bladder. This causes cystitis, a bladder infection. In some cases, urethritis, an infection of the urethra, occurs at the same time. Bacteria that have infected the bladder may travel up the ureters to the kidneys. This can cause pyelonephritis, a kidney infection. An infection in the upper tract may cause a more severe illness than infection in the lower tract.


There are many reasons why a woman may get a UTI. The most common causes include bacteria from the rectum and vagina, sex, or abnormalities in the urinary tract.


Bacteria from the bowel live on the skin near the rectum or in the vagina. These bacteria can spread and enter the urinary tract through the urethra. If they move up the urethra, they may cause infections in the bladder and, sometimes, in other parts of the urinary tract.


Women's anatomy makes them prone to getting UTIs after having sex. The opening of the urethra is in front of the vagina. During sex, bacteria near the vagina can be massaged into the urethra by the penis, fingers, or devices.

Abnormalities in the Urinary Tract

Infections also can occur when urine backs up instead of flowing out from the bladder. When this occurs, the bladder does not empty completely.

Other Causes

Certain other factors increase your chance of getting a UTI. You are more likely to get an infection if you:

  • * Are pregnant
  • * Had UTIs as a child
  • * Are past menopause
  • * Have diabetes


Symptoms of UTIs can come on quickly. One sign is a strong urge to urinate that cannot be delayed (urgency). As urine flows, a sharp pain or burning, called dysuria, is felt in the urethra. The urge to urinate then returns minutes later (frequency).

Other symptoms may show up in the urine. It may:

  • * Have a strong odor
  • * Look cloudy
  • * Sometimes be tinged with blood

If the bacteria enter the ureters and spread to the kidneys, symptoms also may include:

  • * Back pain
  • * Chills
  • * Fever
  • * Nausea
  • * Vomiting


The key to treating a UTI is a prompt diagnosis. Your doctor may first do a simple test, called urinalysis, to find out whether you have a UTI. This sample will be studied in a lab under the microscope for the presence of white and red blood cells and bacteria.

The urine sample also may be grown in a culture (a substance that promotes the growth of bacteria) to see which bacteria are present.


Antibiotics are used to treat UTIs. The type, dose, and length of the antibiotic treatment depends on the type of bacteria causing the infection and on your medical history.

In most cases, treatment is quick and effective. Most symptoms go away in one to two days. Be sure to take all the medication even though your symptoms may go away before you finish your prescription.

Recurrent Infections

Urinary tract infections that come back a week or two after treatment are called recurrent infections. They can be frustrating, annoying, and difficult to treat.


There are a number of ways to prevent UTIs:

  • * After a bowel movement or after urinating, wipe from front to back
  • * Wash the skin around the rectum and the genital area
  • * Avoid using douches, powder, and deodorant sprays
  • * Drink plenty of fluids (including water) to flush bacteria out of your urinary system
  • * Empty your bladder as soon as you feel the urge or about every two to three hours
  • * Try to empty your bladder before and after sex
  • * Wear underwear with a cotton crotch


Urinary tract infections are common and can be painful. If you have symptoms of a UTI, see your doctor right away.

This excerpt from ACOG's Patient Education Pamphlet is provided for your information. It is not medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for visiting your doctor. If you need medical care, have any questions, or wish to receive the full text of this Patient Education Pamphlet, please contact your obstetrician-gynecologist.

To ensure the information is current and accurate, ACOG titles are reviewed every 18 months.

Copyright © Dr. Lisa Savage, MD. All rights reserved.