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Urinary tract infection (UTI)

We explore urinary tract infection symptoms as well as common causes and available treatments

Your urinary tract is made up of your:

  • Kidneys – two small bean-shaped organs, each about the size of a fist
  • Ureter - the tube connecting your kidneys to your bladder
  • Bladder - a hollow organ that stores urine
  • Urethra – the tube running from the bladder to the outside of the body, which allows urine to pass out of the body

An infection in any part of the urinary tract is referred to as a urinary tract infection (UTI). UTIs are a very common type of infection, especially in women. More than half of women will have a urinary tract infection at some point in their lives.1

While ‘urinary tract infection’ is a general term, infections in different parts of the urinary tract are given different names:

  • Cystitis is an infection in the bladder
  • Urethritis is an infection in the urethra
  • Kidney infection (pyelonephritis) is an infection in a kidney

The majority of UTIs are caused by bacteria being introduced into the urinary tract. Some UTIs may be caused by a fungi or virus, although this is less common. Most UTIs will only affect the urethra and bladder. A UTI in the ureters or kidneys will often be more severe.

Certain things can increase your risk of developing a urinary tract infection, including:

  • Kidney stones
  • A previous UTI
  • An obstruction in the urinary tract – this may be a partial or total blockage caused by an enlarged prostate, some types of cancer or a kidney stone
  • Use of contraceptive diaphragms or condoms coated in spermicide
  • Inability to empty the bladder fully
  • A weakened immune system
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • Extended use of a urinary catheter

Urinary tract infections vary in both the type and severity of their symptoms, so different people will experience them differently. A UTI in the ureters or kidneys will usually cause more severe symptoms, but this is not always the case.

The most common symptoms of a urinary tract infection are:

  • Needing to wee more frequently
  • Difficulty passing urine
  • Feeling like you need to wee urgently
  • A burning feeling when urinating
  • Blood in the urine
  • Pain in the lower part of the tummy
  • Urine with an unusually strong smell
  • Urine with an abnormal colour

Symptoms of a kidney infection

If a urinary tract infection develops in or spreads to your kidneys or ureters, you may also develop:

  • A high temperature
  • Nausea
  • Pain in your back or side
  • A high temperature (or just feel hot)
  • Shivering
  • A very low temperature (below 36°C)

Symptoms of a kidney infection usually come on quite quickly, within a few hours.

When a UTI spreads to your kidneys, it’s known as pyelonephritis. This needs to be treated quickly to prevent further problems developing, such as:

  • Sepsis – also known as septicaemia or blood poisoning, this is a life-threatening reaction to an infection, caused by an overreaction in your immune system
  • Renal scarring
  • Formation of a renal abscess

If left untreated, the bacteria may end up passing into the blood and causing serious health issues.

If you have any worries at all that you might have a kidney infection, you should see a doctor immediately.

It might be that you don’t need treatment, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry. The sooner an infection is discovered the better, because an earlier diagnosis means that your treatment can start sooner, before the infection spreads further or develops into something more serious.

Symptoms of a UTI in females

Women are much more likely than men to develop a UTI. The main reason is that the female urethra is shorter than the male urethra, meaning bacteria has a shorter distance to travel to enter the bladder. Also, the urethra in females is close to both the vagina and the anus, again increasing the likelihood of bacteria entering the bladder.

In addition to the symptoms listed above, women with a UTI may experience pelvic pain.

Symptoms of a UTI in males

An enlarged prostate can increase the likelihood of developing a UTI. In addition to the common symptoms listed above, men with a UTI may experience rectal pain.

Symptoms of a UTI in the elderly

If an older person develops a UTI, additional symptoms may include:

  • Behavioural changes such as confusion or agitation
  • Loss of bladder control (incontinence)
  • Shivering

If you have or think you have a UTI, it’s important to speak to a doctor. A long-term untreated urinary tract infection can have significant effects on a person’s health.

“Long term effects can include damage to the kidneys, risk of life-threatening infections, poor quality of life, relationship problems and disruption in work,” explains Consultant Urological Surgeon Mr Shabi Ahmad, who works at The Priory Hospital in Birmingham.

Any one of these would be challenging to deal with, so it is easy to imagine how difficult it would be to try to cope with a number of these at the same time.

Fortunately, there are effective treatments for UTIs, all available at your local Circle Health Group hospital. 

Most UTIs can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Your consultant will advise you of the most appropriate course of treatment for you, including type of antibiotic, dose, frequency and duration.

Drinking plenty of water can help, as it ensures your urinary system is in use and being ‘flushed’.

Some people find that over-the-counter painkillers are helpful in relieving pain or discomfort. You can ask your consultant about this, or talk to your local pharmacist.

Although a UTI can’t be passed on to a partner through intercourse, you may find that it is uncomfortable. For this reason, you might choose to avoid having sex until your symptoms have improved.

If your UTI comes back after initial treatment, your consultant may need to prescribe a different antibiotic. You might require a repeat prescription to help prevent UTIs coming back in the future.

Antibiotic treatment will often be all that is needed to successfully resolve the symptoms of a urinary tract infection and to get you back to better health again. In rare cases, surgery may be needed. This is usually if a UTI is found to be caused by an underlying condition.

If surgery is needed, your consultant will discuss the operation with you, explaining potential risks and complications, as well as the benefits you can expect to see. You will always have the information you need to make an informed decision about treatment.

The symptoms of a urinary tract infection can be frustrating at best, debilitating and concerning at worst. By getting a prompt diagnosis and the correct treatment at an early stage, you will be able to enjoy relief from your symptoms and lower the possibility of developing more serious infections or complications in the future.

“Treatment can improve the quality of both your personal and professional life. You will benefit from having a general feeling of well-being,” explains Mr Ahmad. “Treatment can also prevent additional damage to the organs, and the initial investigations can help to put your mind at ease by ruling out any sinister underlying conditions.”

Effective help for a UTI is available. If you would like to talk to one of our consultants, it is very easy to book an appointment at a time that is convenient for you. We have the largest network of private hospitals in the UK, with thousands of specialists available to provide expert assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

If you want more information about having treatment with us, call us on 0141 300 5009 and one of our friendly advisors will be happy to help you. We can help you get the support you need for your urinary tract infection, without delay.

Content reviewed by Mr Shabi Ahmad in May 2022. Next review due May 2025.


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