May 1, 2023

These uncomfortable infections are easily treated, but better to avoid them.

A urinary tract infection, often called a UTI, can affect the bladder, the ureters (tubes carrying fluid from the kidneys to the bladder), the urethra (which carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body), or even the kidneys. Medically, a urinary tract infection is considered a bladder infection.

A primary care provider can prescribe antibiotics to treat a urinary tract infection. Dr. Anne Gifford of Vanderbilt  Primary Care explains these common infections:

“Urinary tract infections are a constellation of symptoms that include burning and pain and stinging with urination,” Gifford said. Those are the typical signs. UTIs can also cause pain or pressure in the lower abdomen. They typically change the pattern of urination – if you have this type of infection, you may feel like you need to pee more often than usual, including feeling that sensation shortly after you’ve already urinated. You may make frequent trips to the bathroom to pass a small amount of urine. Sometimes these infections are associated with back pain, a fever, or as a lab test may show, abnormal white blood cell counts.

Older adults – roughly age 65 and older – may experience additional, or different, symptoms because of a UTI, Gifford said. This kind of illness can cause older patients to feel mentally foggy, fatigued or moody, and can cause a sudden lack of continence. Changes in energy or mental status can be triggered by many things, however. Older patients and their caregivers should not assume that a urinary tract infection is the problem, Gifford said, but it’s a good idea to get tested for one. A primary care provider or geriatric specialist can arrange for the lab test.

Antibiotics usually clear up a UTI in five to seven days.

How to prevent urinary tract infections

Though these infections are common and easily treated, their symptoms can be very uncomfortable. Prevention is always better than having to deal with the problem.

The best way to avoid a urinary tract infection is to practice good hygiene, Gifford said. “Certainly that means bathroom hygiene,” she said. Wipe thoroughly after urinating or passing a bowel movement. Wash hands well after using the bathroom. 

“People who have who have bowel symptoms or diarrhea, or incontinence of urine or the bowels, or difficulty with hygiene around urine and bowel [movements] can also be more prone to infections,” she said, “just because it’s harder to keep that area clean during those periods of time.

Sexual activity can contribute to urinary tract infections; two bodies tend to exchange bacteria. Urinating after sex can help the bladder flush out germs, Gifford said. 

“There are a couple of supplements that can help prevent infections and maybe prevent those bacteria from sticking on the inner wall of the bladder,” Gifford said. Probiotics, for example those found in yogurt, can help with bladder health. She also suggested a supplement called D-Mannose. It’s a recently developed supplement meant to prevent bacteria from “sticking” to the lining of the bladder, for those who have frequent infections. (Three UTIs in a year, or two in six months, is considered recurrent.)

There’s debate in health care over whether drinking water frequently can help prevent these infections. One theory is that drinking plenty of water flushes out the bladder, “and helps create a steady downward stream of movement,” Gifford said, which discourages infections. 

But it’s also possible that drinking large amounts of water dilutes the urine, which means substance in urine that are meant to be antibacterial – for example, ammonia, which gives urine its distinctive odor – are diluted and therefore less effective against bacteria.

Cranberry juice is frequently mentioned as a home remedy, but studies are mixed on whether it actually helps prevent or cure a UTI, Gifford said. Cranberry juice cocktail contains a lot of sugar, which can possibly encourage bacteria growth, she pointed out. Some studies, however, show that drinking cranberry juice has a slightly preventive effect in people who get recurring infections. Drinking a moderate amount of it as a preventive probably can’t hurt you, Gifford said, but don’t rely on cranberry juice or other home remedies for treatment instead of seeing a health care provider. 

Head-and-shoulders portrait of a middle aged white woman standing outdoors.

Need help with a UTI?

If you are feeling symptoms of a urinary tract infection, a primary care physician can make a diagnosis and get you started with treatment. Vanderbilt Health urologists can also help.

Vanderbilt Primary Care