Urinary tract infections (UTI) – also sometimes referred to as ‘cystitis’ or ‘bladder infection’ – are bacterial infections in the urinary system. The urinary system includes the bladder, kidneys, ureters (tubes that go from the kidneys to the bladder) and urethra. UTIs are quite common and usually not serious, but if you’ve ever experienced one, you know how serious they can feel and how urgently you need treatment to address the issue.
Most UTIs are due to bacteria that are normally found in your digestive tract, such as E. coli., although other bacteria can cause them as well. Many types of bacteria live in the intestines, but because urine is sterile, the urinary system is typically bacteria-free. So when rogue bacteria are introduced into the urinary system, it can trigger a UTI. In most cases, bacteria travel up the urethra to the bladder. It is estimated that 150 million UTIs occur yearly on a global basis, making it one of the most frequent bacterial infections worldwide. Of those affected by a UTI, only about 0.05% are estimated to be men.
It seems that UTIs tend to favour women based on their anatomy. Nearly one in three women will have had a UTI requiring antibiotic treatment by the age of 24. Women are more likely to get urinary tract infections because the urethra is much shorter than in men. Because the urethral opening is closer to the anus in women, it’s easier for bacteria from stool to also find its way into the urethra. In men, a UTI is almost always a symptom of another condition. Oftentimes, the infection has moved from the prostate or some other part of the body, or it may mean that something is blocking the urinary tract.
The first step in diagnosing a UTI is typically a simple urinalysis test, done using a urine sample. It looks for bacteria as well as abnormal counts of white and red blood cells. Most often this is done by using a dipstick test, or a urine test strip. It is quick, but not the most accurate or reliable method because it can result in a false negative. Lab analysis of the urine can also consist of a urine culture, which can tell the physician which bacteria may be causing the infection and which medications will be most effective – it just may take a little longer. This is the ideal scenario in terms of specificity because guessing and getting the wrong antibiotic can lead to an increase in antibiotic resistance among urinary tract pathogens.
There are both holistic and medical treatments, or a combination of both, that are recommended by healthcare professionals. It is sometimes recommended to drink lots of fluids in order to flush out the bacteria by emptying the bladder more frequently. You may have also heard or seen on some medical websites that drinking cranberry juice can help prevent UTIs and/or help get rid of them. Some studies suggest it can help prevent an infection because cranberries contain a substance that prevents E. coli bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. Without sticking to the wall, bacteria such as E. coli can’t infect the urinary tract. You can find countless anecdotes from online commenters swearing that it works for them, despite the contradicting scientific evidence. But the real hero when it comes to UTIs is antibiotics.
Prescription antibiotics will almost always cure a UTI, therefore treatment is usually straightforward, although in recent years this has become more complicated due to the overprescription of broad-spectrum antibiotics. It’s important to consult a physician if you think you may have a UTI so you can get the proper antibiotic treatment.
Still want to know more?
Visit our AMR (antimicrobial resistance) page to learn even more about how it’s crucial to use antibiotics and other antimicrobial treatments in the right way.
- Blahd, W. MD (reviewed by). (2017). ‘Slideshow: A Visual Guide to Urinary Tract Infections.’
- Bandukwala, N.Q. DO (reviewed by). (2018). ‘What Are Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)?’
- Cox, D. 2017. ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about urinary tract infections.’
- Jepson, R. G., Williams, G., & Craig, J. C. (2012). Cranberries for preventing urinary tract infections. The Cochrane Library.
- Krieger, J. N., Ross, S. O., & Simonsen, J. M. (1993). Urinary tract infections in healthy university men. The Journal of urology, 149(5), 1046-1048.
- Pevzner, H. (2018) ‘How to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections or UTIs’.
- Raz, R., Chazan, B., & Dan, M. (2004). Cranberry juice and urinary tract infection. Clinical infectious diseases, 38(10), 1413-1419.
- ‘Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)’.