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What causes urinary tract infections?

Asked by Julia Foster, Columbus, Ohio

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What triggers urinary tract infections?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thank you for your question. A urinary tract infection, or UTI, means that bacteria have entered the urinary system and spread somewhere from the urethra to the bladder or even up to the kidneys.

Symptoms usually include pain with urination and the need to urinate more frequently. There may also be blood in the urine, lower abdominal pain or fever. UTIs are much more common in women than in men but can occur in both sexes and at any age.

Pregnant women and people with diabetes may also be more likely to get UTIs. The symptoms of a UTI may resemble that of a vaginal yeast infection or irritation of the opening of the urethra, so it is important to be checked out by a doctor.

A UTI might occur when bacteria from the rectum or anal area travels into the urethra and bladder -- as might happen when a woman wipes with toilet paper from the back part of the body to the front after using the bathroom. The tissue lining the urinary tract in some women may be especially prone to the growth of bacteria.

Having sexual intercourse frequently or using spermicides may also increase a woman's risk of developing a UTI. Urinary tract infections can also run in the family, so if a woman's mother is prone to UTIs, that woman may get them more often too. UTIs are also more common in women who do not have good bladder control (called urinary incontinence) or those who have problems emptying their bladder completely.

Because there are so many possible factors involved, it can be helpful to consult with your physician if you experience repeated urinary tract infections. Future infections may be avoided by drinking more liquids; changing one's contraception or sexual habits; or taking probiotics, antibiotics or other medications to keep bacteria from invading the urinary system.

Some women may benefit from having an ultrasound or other studies to check the anatomy of the urinary tract and to look for problems such as kidney stones.

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