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Urinary tract infection - causes, symptoms, treatment

 
The most common symptom of urinary tract infection is a painful, burning sensation when passing urine. Urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria entering the urethra and multiplying in the bladder. They are usually treated successfully with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor. Urinary tract infections are quite common, especially among women and children. 

Causes

Urinary system
Normal urine is sterile and contains no germs such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract via the urethra. UTIs are most commonly caused by bacteria that normally live in the bowel.
 

The urinary tract consists of the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. The urethra is the opening to the urinary tract where urine comes out. A UTI can be classified by the area of the urinary tract that it affects:

  • When only the urethra is affected it is known as urethritis
  • When the bladder is affected it is known as cystitis (the most common form of UTI)
  • When the kidneys are affected it is known as pyelonephritis, which can cause kidney damage if left untreated.  
Risk factors
 

Females are particularly at risk of getting a UTI because bacteria can more easily move into their urinary tracts due to the urethra and anus being close together. Other factors that can increase the risk of UTIs include:

  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • Structural defects of the urinary tract
  • Being sexually active
  • Any factor that obstructs urine flow eg: kidney stones, an enlarged prostate
  • Having a catheter inserted into the bladder
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Being post-menopausal
  • Using a diaphragm or spermicidal agents for birth control
  • Having a weakened immune system.
UTIs are also common during childhood. The most common causes of UTIs in children are constipation, not emptying their bladder fully, and delaying peeing. Boys are more likely to develop UTIs during infancy whereas girls are more likely to develop UTIs after infancy.

Symptoms

The most common symptom of a UTI is a painful, burning sensation when passing urine. Other symptoms include: 

  • Pain in the abdomen or pelvic area
  • A frequent or constant urge to urinate
  • Cloudy or smelly urine.

 When the kidneys are affected other symptoms experienced can include:  

  • Back pain
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blood-stained urine.

Some people with a UTI may have no symptoms at all, while some people who have these symptoms may not have a UTI. Symptoms in children may be less clear: 

  • Being generally unsettled
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea.
Babies with a UTI may have no symptoms other than a fever. Older children may have pain or burning during urination and/or a need to urinate frequently.
 
If your child is toilet trained and suddenly starts to wet their pants again, or doesn't want to pass urine because of pain, it could be a sign of a UTI. You should see your family GP if your baby or child has any of the signs and symptoms indicating they might have a UTI.
 
Because UTIs can make babies and young children seriously ill, a doctor or after-hours medical centre should be seen as soon as possible if they have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Vomiting that is persistent
  • Shivering.

Diagnosis and treatment

If a UTI is suspected it is important to consult a doctor as soon as practicable so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and appropriate treatment given. Prompt treatment is important to prevent infection of the kidneys and other potential complications (such as sepsis) from developing. Until a doctor can be consulted, initial treatment measures include: 

  • Drinking lots of water
  • Avoiding fluids that may irritate the bladder (eg. fizzy drinks, alcohol, coffee, and tea)
  • Treating pain or fever with medications such as paracetamol.
Diagnosis of a UTI can usually be made by assessing symptoms and by testing the urine for the presence of bacteria and blood cells.

UTIs are usually treated successfully with antibiotics.  The course of antibiotics is taken orally, usually from three to ten days depending on circumstances. 

Symptoms are usually relieved within 24 to 48 hours of the first dose of antibiotics being given, but it is important to finish the full course of antibiotics as prescribed to ensure that the infection does not come back, and to prevent the infection from becoming resistant to the antibiotic (i.e. the antibiotic will not work as well if the infection returns). 

With more complicated and recurrent infections there may be an underlying cause such as urinary (vesicoureteral) reflux in children. If an underlying cause is suspected it needs to be identified and appropriately treated where possible. Diagnostic tests that may be used include ultrasound or computerised tomography (CT) scans and specialised x-rays of the urinary tract.

If there is a history of recurrent UTIs due to a known underlying cause, a cystoscopy may be performed to see inside the urethra and bladder, and low-dose antibiotics may be given daily for a period of weeks or months to prevent UTIs developing. If kidney infection develops, hospitalisation may be required so that antibiotics can be administered through a drip. 

Prevention

The following general steps can help prevent a UTI developing:  

  • Drink plenty of water each day to avoid dehydration
  • Pass urine when needed. Do not delay
  • Urinate soon after sexual intercourse
  • After toileting always wipe the bottom from front to back
  • Shower rather than use a bath
  • Do not use perfumed soaps or body wash
  • Do not use sprays, powders, or douches of the genital area
  • Stop smoking
  • See a doctor as soon as possible if symptoms of a UTI are experienced.

References

Kidshealth (2016). Urinary tract infection (UTI) (Web Page). Auckland: Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation. http://www.kidshealth.org.nz/urinary-tract-infection-uti [Accessed: 21/08/19] 
Mayo Clinic (2019). Urinary tract infection (UTI) (Web Page). Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/urinary-tract-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20353447 [Accessed: 21/08/19] 
Ministry of Health (2017). Urinary Tract Infection (Web Page). Wellington: Ministry of Health. http://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/diseases-and-illnesses/urinary-problems/urinary-tract-infection [Accessed: 21/08/19] O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2017). Urinary tract infection (UTI). Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (10th ed.). St Louis, MI: Elsevier. 
Weinberg, G. A. (2018). Urinary tract infection (UTI) in children (Web Page). MSD Manual Consumer Version. Kenilworth, NJ: Merck and Co., Inc. https://www.msdmanuals.com/en-nz/home/children-s-health-issues/bacterial-infections-in-infants-and-children/urinary-tract-infection-uti-in-children [Accessed 26/08/19] 

Updated – September 2019
 
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