Women know all too well about having a urinary tract infection (UTI). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, females will deal with this uncomfortable condition up to 30 times more often than males, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) reports that 40-60% of women will be diagnosed with a UTI at some point in their life.
What's worse: Between four and 10 women who have a UTI will have a repeat infection within six months. (Jeez, can't a girl catch a break?)
Generally speaking, a UTI is an infection that occurs anywhere within the urinary system, which includes the bladder, kidneys, ureters, and urethra. "[But] a urinary tract infection is commonly used to refer to an infection in the bladder, with the medical term of cystitis," says Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine and senior vice president of clinical strategy at Sharecare.
Even though men have the same urinary system as women, females experience UTIs more often because they have a much shorter urethra — the duct that allows urine to leave the bladder and exit your body — which Dr. Long Gillespie says makes them more susceptible. "Plus, the urethra in women starts right where the vagina and rectum are located, making it really easy for germs to spread," she adds.
If you're not sure whether the symptoms you're experiencing are related to a UTI, here are six major signs of UTI that mean it's time to get yourself to the doctor. Because regardless of whether the bacteria is located in the lower urinary tract (the bladder) or has flowed to the upper urinary tract (one or both of the kidneys), Dr. Long Gillespie says the treatment is a dose of antibiotics that requires a prescription.
1. You have pain in the belly area.
Pressure, cramping, or aching in the lower abdomen is a classic sign of UTI, and Dr. Long Gillespie says it usually happens because bacteria, such as E. coli, moves to areas where it shouldn't be. It's not bad for bacteria to be present — we all have good and bad bacteria floating around — but when it moves from the anus, where it originates, up the urethra and into the bladder, it can cause infection.
"E. coli has little attachments on it called pili that allow it to travel along the vaginal area, then up the urethra and into the bladder," says Fara Bellows, M.D., urologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. While our system can usually fight off this invading bacteria, sometimes our natural defenses slack off, allowing the E. coli to linger and multiply. That leads to an overgrowth of these microorganisms, which translates to pelvic pain and tips you off that it's time to see a doctor.
2. It hurts when you pee.
A burning sensation and/or pain while urinating are key symptoms of a UTI, and a funky pee smell could be present on top of it. These symptoms usually crop up because white blood cell formation, also known as pyuria, causes your bladder's lining to become inflamed, Dr. Bellows says. Infected urine then acts as an irritant, and together this scenario causes the foul smell and burning sensation that makes using the bathroom so torturous.
To avoid these symptoms (and a subsequent infection), Dr. Long Gillespie stresses the importance of properly wiping after using the bathroom. "The urethra is at the front, so to prevent spreading germs, women are always supposed to wipe from front to back," she says.
3. Your urine isn't yellow.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the color of normal urine ranges from pale yellow to deep amber. The shade can slightly shift due to lifestyle factors, including what you eat (berries and beets can give urine a pinkish hue), what you drink (being well-hydrated can lighten the tone), and types of medication you take (some can turn urine greenish-blue). However, your urine's color can also indicate an infection; pee that is cloudy, milky, or dark brown could be a sign of a UTI. "Sometimes you will also see blood in the urine," Dr. Long Gillespie adds, and that's a sure sign that you need to get to the doctor.
4. You're making a ton of trips to the bathroom.
"Having to frequently urinate and having the sense that you suddenly need to urinate are both common symptoms of a UTI in the bladder," Dr. Long Gillespie says. But it's not the same as frequently needing to pee because you're drinking tons of water. When it's a UTI, you'll have the feeling of desperately needing to relieve yourself, but only a small amount of urine may trickle out.
5. You're super tired.
When the body has an infection, your immune system goes into overdrive and releases white blood cells to fight off a foreign invader (aka bacteria, viruses, and toxins). Needless to say, this immune response can leave you feeling drained, shaky, confused, and weak, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
6. You feel like you caught a stomach bug.
If UTIs aren't caught in time, they can spread and cause a kidney infection, which is the leading cause of approximately 100,000 hospital visits each year in the U.S., reports the NIDDK. When that happens, Dr. Long Gillespie says the symptoms are more widespread. You could experience everything from a fever and chills to an achy back, nausea, and vomiting — all common signs of the stomach flu. But when these symptoms are combined with pelvic discomfort, as well as frequent and painful urination, it's a likely indicator that the diagnosis will be a UTI, and your doctor can get you started on antibiotics right away.
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