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Guide to identifying UTI and managing its risk

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A urinary tract infection indicates an infection in any part of the urinary tract. The urinary tract comprises the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most UTIs are the result of a bacterial infection. However, it can also be caused by fungi and viruses. 

The urinary tract is divided into two main regions: the upper urinary tract (ureters and kidneys) and the lower urinary tract (urethra and bladder). Most UTIs occur in the lower urinary tract. However, infections in the upper urinary tract are generally more severe.

What is UTI?

Urinary tract infection or UTI is a bacterial, fungal or viral infection in any part of the urinary tract. Bladder infections are the most common form of UTI. Our body has its own natural defence against infections in the urinary tract. However, in some cases, this natural defence is not enough to ward off these infections. In such cases getting treated early on is the best way to prevent recurring infections. If left unchecked, a simple UTI can lead to severe kidney (renal) problems. 

What are the symptoms of UTI?

A mild case of UTI does not necessarily cause any obvious problems and can go undetected. Common symptoms of UTIs include:

  • Pain or burning while urinating 
  • Frequent urge to pass urine 
  • Passing small amounts of urine 
  • Blood in the urine 
  • Pressure or cramping in the groin/lower abdomen 
  • Smelly urine

If left untreated, the infection can spread to one or both kidneys. Symptoms of a kidney infection are:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Lower back pain 
  • Nausea and vomiting

Detecting UTIs in infants and younger children is more challenging as they may not be able to relay their symptoms clearly. Even though fever is one of the most commonly associated symptoms of UTI in children, it doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of UTI. Consult a doctor immediately if your child has any unexplained fever. 

Amongst elderly patients, UTIs may be overlooked and mistaken for other conditions. In reality, older people are the most vulnerable to UTIs for a number of reasons including a weaker immune system. Another factor that contributes to the risk of UTI is the weakening of the muscles of the bladder and pelvic floor, leading to increased urinary retention (inability to completely empty the bladder) and incontinence (inability to control the bladder muscles). 

Elderly patients may also find it difficult to relay their symptoms, especially if they are suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

How is UTI treated?

UTIs are generally treated with a course of antibiotics. The strength and dosage of the antibiotics prescribed depend on the severity of your infection. It is important to always complete the course of antibiotics, even if the symptoms go away mid-treatment. Your doctor might also prescribe other medicines in combination with the antibiotics to relieve pain and discomfort.  

Apart from the recommended medications, you would also have to make some lifestyle changes to complement your treatment. This includes drinking more water and applying a hot compress for pain relief. 

Read: Chronic Kidney disease: What is it and how can it be prevented?

What are the risk factors for UTI?

UTIs can occur in people of any age, including children and infants. Some people are more prone to contracting infections as compared to others. Women are more prone to developing UTIs as compared to men. While some risk factors are beyond our control, others can be managed to minimise the risk of developing UTI. 

The risk factors of UTI include:

  • Being sexually active
  • Menopause
  • Use of certain birth control methods
  • Inability to empty the bladder
  • Blockage in the urinary tract
  • Weak immune system 
  • Diabetes
  • Use of a urinary catheter
  • History of UTIs

Senior patients are at a higher risk of developing UTI especially if they:

  • Are diabetic
  • Use a urinary catheter
  • Have an enlarged prostate
  • Are bedridden/paralysed
  • Had any surgery in/around the bladder
  • Have kidney stones
  • Have urinary incontinence

Why are women more prone to develop UTIs?

Studies show that women are significantly at a higher risk of developing UTIs. This trend is majorly due to the difference in the structure of the urinary tract in both men and women. Women have a shorter urethra making it easier for contagion to infect the bladder. Another factor is that the urethra is closer to the rectum in women, increasing the exposure of the urinary tract to bacteria. 

What complications can develop from UTIs?

Complications from UTIs are quite rare if the patient is undergoing the right treatment. However, if it is left unchecked, it can result in the following complications:

  • Recurrent infections 
  • Permanent kidney damage 
  • Low birth weight or preterm labour (for pregnant patients)
  • Urethral narrowing (stricture)
  • Sepsis 

How can you reduce the risk of UTIs?

Many health practitioners believe that the rise in the number of UTI cases is majorly due to our lifestyle. The following steps can help you minimise your risk of developing UTIs:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. This will help your body flush out your urinary tract more frequently, minimising the exposure to harmful contagion
  • Drink cranberry juice. Although there is no conclusive proof about the effectiveness of cranberry juice in preventing UTIs, it does not cause harm and does help to hydrate the patient and induce urination to clean the urinary tract
  • Clean from front to back every time after urination and bowel movement. This helps in preventing the spread of bacteria from the anal region to the vagina/urethra
  • Empty your bladder after sexual intercourse. Drink a glass of water if required to flush out the bacteria
  • Avoid using deodorant sprays or other perfumed feminine products in the genital area as it can act as an irritant
  • Change your birth control method or visit a gynaecologist if you are suffering from recurrent UTIs

Personal hygiene plays a key role in preventing recurrent UTIs. Remember to use clean and washed underwear, preferably made of absorbent material such as cotton and keep yourself hydrated to minimise your risk of infection.

Consult Dr Shalabh Agrawal, best urologist in Gurgaon at the CK Birla Hospital to learn more about this condition and possible treatment options. Book your appointment today!

Also, read: Urinary Tract Infection – Symptoms, Risk Factors and Prevention

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