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Our education program for better urinary health

  • Urinary Tract Infections are common, particularly with increasing age*
  • Women are more likely to get a UTI than men*
  • About 1 in 2 women and 1 in 20 men will get a UTI in their lifetime*
  • Nearly 1 in 3 women will have a UTI needing treatment before the age of 24*

How does your urinary system work?
Your urinary system is made up of the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra.

Your kidneys do many important jobs. One is to remove waste and extra fluid from the blood to make urine. Narrow tubes called ureters carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder. Urine is stored in your bladder and emptied through the urethra - the tube that drains the bladder.

What is a Urinary Tract Infection?
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are one of the most common reasons for visiting a doctor about an infection. A UTI can range from an infection of the bladder, to an infection of the kidney.

  • If the infection is in the urethra, it is called urethritis.
  • Infection in the vagina is called vaginitis.
  • Pyelonephritis describes an upper urinary tract infection, which is very serious as it may affect the kidneys.
  • If it is in the bladder, causing urinary bladder inflammation, it is called cystitis.

Cystitis is the most common lower urinary tract infection and causes the bladder lining to become raw and inflamed.

Why are they more common in women?
UTIs are more common in women, particularly with increasing age. Women get more UTIs than men because of the length of their urethra - the longer the urethra, the more protection you have. In women the urethra is fairly short and straight making it easier for germs to travel into the bladder.
  • Changes in hormonal levels - some women are more likely to get an infection during certain times in their menstrual cycle when their oestrogen is lower, such as just before a period, or in pregnancy.
  • In older women - the tissues of the urethra and bladder become thinner and drier with age as well as after menopause or a hysterectomy. This can be linked to increased UTIs. If you are taking hormone replacement therapy in tablet or patch form, you may wish to speak to your doctor about using a hormone replacement therapy cream or pessary, as a supplement in the genital area for relief of dryness.
  • During pregnancy - the drainage system from the kidney to the bladder widens so urine does not drain as quickly. This makes it easier to get a UTI and sometimes germs can move from the bladder to the kidney causing a kidney infection. UTIs during pregnancy can result in increased blood pressure and a smaller, premature baby so it is very important to have them treated promptly.
What are the symptoms of a UTI?
A faint prickly feeling during urination is usually the first sign of a urinary tract infection. Bacteria can be present in a urine sample without causing any symptoms. This is more common in women who have diabetes, repeated UTIs, or in the elderly. This type of UTI may not always need treatment except in special situations, such as in pregnant women. UTIs with symptoms are most common among sexually active women.

Common symptoms include:

  • burning sensation when passing urine
  • wanting to urinate more often, if only to pass a few drops
  • cloudy, bloody or very smelly urine
  • pain in the lower part of your body

Signs of UTIs in children can also include:

  • low fever
  • irritability
  • new day or night wetting in a child who has been dry
  • feeding problems in babies

If the infection moves to the kidneys, you may also have a high fever, back pain and vomiting. It is important to see a doctor if a kidney infection or kidney stones are suspected because lasting damage or even kidney failure can occur, if these conditions are left untreated.

How can urinary tract infections be treated?
Because UTIs can be the result of a more serious medical condition, it is important to seek prompt medical advice for proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Besides the use of prescription drugs, sometimes mild cystitis can be treated by:

  • drinking plenty of fluids, particularly water - drink water instead -  as it can help to flush out bacteria.

  • taking a commercial urinary alkaliser or one teaspoon of baking soda or bicarbonate of soda in water. This may help to alleviate the discomfort of burning and scalding when passing urine. It is important to refer to your doctor if symptoms persist.

  • avoid acidic food or drinks (caffeine, acidic foods, spices, citrus fruits, tomatoes, alcohol and chocolate) as these foods may increase your discomfort and can aggravate the burning sensation when passing urine. They also cancel out the effect of the urinary alkaniser.

  • use a heating pad on your abdomen to minimize bladder pressure or discomfort.

Medical advice is needed if self-help treatments aren't working. The doctor usually tests the urine to check for blood, white blood cells and cell acidity. UTIs respond well to antibiotics.

If a UTI comes back again your doctor can order a 'culture'
A 'culture' is a test to see which germs are present in your urine. The identification of the germ assist with the choice of antibiotic to treat the infection. Sometimes a low dose antibiotic may be prescribed for long-term use if the UTI is persistent. Test results may not always be reliable as there is a chance of a false negative result.

Men should see a doctor - if they have trouble with the urine stream, or problems starting and stopping urine flow; it may point to an enlargement of the prostate. As urine infections are less common in men, their doctor should review all men who have had a urine infection.

If a UTI does not improve or are frequently recurring - it may be a good idea to get a referral to a specialist from your doctor. Regular and severe attacks should be investigated because an underlying disorder such as kidney stones may be the trigger.

Fact Sheets - Informed consent for medical testing and webpage Talk to your Doctor

How can UTIs be avoided?

  • Drinking lots of fluid, particularly water, to wash bacteria from the bladder and urinary tract. If you are unsure about how much to drink, ask your doctor.
  • Quickly treat a vaginal infection, such as thrush or trichomoniasis.
  • Avoiding spermicide-containing products, particularly with a diaphragm.
  • Avoid constipation.
  • Include fresh plain unsweetened yoghurt in your daily diet, or a probiotic capsule (lactobacillus acidophilus culture) to help control the development of a yeast infection, especially after taking antibiotics for a UTI. This may help to stop the cycle of re-infection.
  • Some women have found the following tips helpful although there is no research to support them:
    • urinate immediately after sexual intercourse
    • do not delay going to the toilet when you need to
    • wipe from front to back after urinating
    • wear only cotton underwear and wear loose fitting pants
    • use only warm water when washing between your legs
    • wash between your legs every day and before having sexual intercourse and encourage your partner to do the same
    • don’t use perfumed soaps, talcum powder or any type of deodorant around the genitals
    • avoid bubble baths and spas - take a shower instead of a bath

It is important to remember that getting UTIs is not because of lack of cleanliness. Self-help treatments such as vaginal douching do not change the likelihood of getting UTIs.

What causes Urinary Tract Infections?
Bacteria do not normally live in the urinary tract. When bacteria enter the urinary tract and multiply, they can cause a UTI. There are many germs that can cause urine infections or cystitis.

  • Some people may be more susceptible to infections because the urinary flow is blocked or the urine is backed up as it flows from the bladder to the kidneys (reflux).
  • The most common germ causing UTIs is found in your digestive system, Esherichia coli (E.coli). It can easily spread to the urethra and sticks to the lining of your urinary system.
  • Other germs such as Mycoplasma and Chlamydia can cause urethritis in both men and women. These germs can be passed on during sexual intercourse so both partners need medical treatment to avoid re-infection.

While it is painful and annoying, a UTI isn’t contagious and the infection can’t be passed on to your partner during sex. However, if left untreated the infection can ‘backtrack’ deeper into the urinary system and reach the kidneys.

A kidney infection is serious and needs prompt medical attention - it is important to see a doctor if a kidney infection or kidney stones are suspected. If these conditions are left untreated they can become more serious.

Do babies and young children get UTIs?
Babies and children are also at risk of UTIs. These infections always need to be investigated as they may indicate a serious underlying condition such as urinary reflux. Reflux is caused by a bladder valve problem allowing urine to flow back into the kidneys from the bladder. Reflux can cause the urine to stay inside the body and may become a pool for infection. Infections may lead to kidney scarring, which in turn leads to high blood pressure and sometimes kidney problems. It is important to have children tested as early as possible if another family member has reflux. An ultrasound is often used to examine the kidney and urinary tract.

What is the link with Diabetes?
UTIs are more likely in women with diabetes. A high level of glucose, a type of sugar in the blood or urine is a clear sign of diabetes. Diabetes may also change your body’s defence system making it harder to fight a UTI. The higher your blood sugar, the less effectively your white blood cells work. See our page Diabetes and CKD.

Why are older people more at risk?
With age, both men and women are more likely to get a UTI. Chronic conditions, some medications and problems with urinary incontinence put older people in a higher risk group. People using bladder catheters including the elderly and those with spinal cord injuries, are more likely to develop a UTI. A catheter is a soft plastic tube inserted into your urethra. The longer the catheter is in place, the higher the risk of a UTI.

Further reading: Kidney Health Resources>

Information on cranberry juice
Advice varies on the effectiveness of using cranberry capsules or juice to reduce the incidence of symptomatic UTIs. Randomised Controlled Trial conclusions around the use of cranberries or blueberries in preventing UTIs vary. Consider these reports which present opposite conclusions:

Negative preventive conclusion
Cranberry juice fails to prevent recurrent urinary tract infection: results from a randomized placebo-controlled trial

Positive conclusion on preventive effect
Cochrane Review - Evidence for cranberries and blueberries in UTI prevention

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Updated 10 July 2015
Disclaimer: This information is intended as an introduction to this topic and is not meant to substitute for your doctor's or health professional's advice. All care is taken to ensure the information is relevant and applicable. It should be noted Kidney Health Australia recognises each person's experience is individual and variations do occur in treatment and management due to personal circumstances. Should you require further information, always consult your doctor or a health professional.

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Last updated: Oct 2015.