How do Urinary Tract Infections Happen – Causes, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

Nearly 150 million urinary tract infections are diagnosed each year by doctors [1]. Though anyone can get a UTI, these infections are much more typical in women. It is estimated that at least half of women will be diagnosed with a UTI at some point in their life. Many of those women will get multiple UTI’s during their lifetime. [2]

Women get more urinary tract infections because of their anatomy. Women have a shorter urethra, typically just one to one and a half inches in length, with the opening being very close in proximity to both the vagina and rectum. This makes it much easier for bacteria to invade the area. [3]

A urinary tract infection occurs when certain types of bacteria are introduced to the urinary tract. The urinary tract includes the urethra, ureters, bladder and kidneys and a UTI can occur in any of these areas. The infection most often starts in the urethra.

When the infection stays in the urethra, the condition is called urethritis. When the infection moves to the bladder, the condition is referred to as cystitis. In more severe UTI’s, the infection can spread to the kidneys; in this case, the condition is called pyelonephritis.


There are a number of bacteria that can cause these infections, but the most common is E. coli, which is estimated to be responsible for up to 80% of UTI’s. Staphylococcus saprophyticus is the second most common bacteria to cause urinary tract infections.

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Other bacteria can cause a UTI, however, including Proteus, Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, Pseudomonas, Enterobacter and Enterococcus. Infections from these other bacteria are much rarer. Fungal infections, viral infections, the use of catheters and abnormalities of the urinary tract can also be causes. As women get older, or experience menopause, their risk of UTI’s becomes increased. [4]

Causes of Increased Risk of UTI

While bacteria are the most common cause of a urinary tract infection, many activities, products and medications can increase the risk of getting one, including:

Poor Bathroom Hygiene – Not wiping properly after using the bathroom is another cause. It is recommended to wipe from the front to the back and not vice versa, so bacteria from the anus is not spread to the vaginal area. [5]

Sexual Intercourse – Certain sexual activities can increase the risk of UTI’s. In particular, the use of sex toys that have not been washed properly can introduce bacteria to the urinary tract quite easily. In addition, intercourse where anal sex takes place can cause the bacteria from the anus to be exposed to the vagina.

Urinating after intercourse can help reduce the exposure to bacteria introduced during sexual activity [6]. Certain spermicides have also shown to increase risk of developing a UTI, due to their changing of the pH balance inside the vagina.

Certain Types of Underwear – In particular, women who wear thong style underwear are more at risk for a UTI. This type of underwear is very tight and is worn very close to the genital area. Underwear can absorb moisture and be a breeding ground for bacteria the longer you wear them.

Catheters – The use of catheters exposes the urinary tract to more opportunities for bacteria to invade.

Diabetes – People who have diabetes are at increased risk for UTI’s due to the lessened immune response, less efficient white blood cells and more common urine stagnation in the bladder. [7]

Immune System Impairment – Any disease which affects the immune system, including HIV/AIDS and other conditions, can increase risk of UTI’s.

Diaphragm – The use of the contraceptive device called the diaphragm can increase risk of a UTI, due to the exposure of the urinary tract to outside bacteria by way of the device and the finger insertion needed to place the device in the vagina. A diaphragm also makes it more difficult for the bladder to empty fully, possibly causing urinary stagnation. [8]

Typical Treatments

Common and effective home remedies for UTI’s include cranberry juice and water. Medication such as antibiotics may also be prescribed. The antibiotics prescribed for a UTI should be taken as directed, as not taking them according to your doctor’s orders can cause the infection to recur. Over the counter pain medications can relieve pain associated with a UTI.

Sensible Prevention for UTI’s

  • Always wipe from front to back.
  • Empty the bladder as often as possible; don’t hold your urine in if you can help it.
  • Empty the bladder before and after sex.
  • Practice good sexual hygiene by taking a shower before and after sex.
  • Thoroughly wash all sex toys or other devices used during sex.
  • Limit or avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can cause dehydration of your urinary tract.
  • Avoid using douches, sprays or other personal care products in the vaginal area, as they can cause irritation. Products which have a fragrance are especially likely to cause irritation.

Symptoms of a UTI

While it is rare that one can have a UTI without any symptoms, it is possible. However, the vast majority of UTI’s will cause symptoms such as:

  • Pain during urination
  • Burning during urination
  • Unusual urine color such as cloudy, milky or bloody urine
  • Unusual urine odor
  • Fatigue
  • Shaky feeling

These symptoms can also be caused by other issues, so it’s important to see your doctor if you have any of the above. In addition, it is important to make sure you get properly diagnosed by a doctor so he can prescribe proper treatment. If a urinary tract infection is left untreated, it can become more serious.


    1. Stamm WE, Norrby SR. Urinary tract infections: disease panorama and challenges. J Infect Dis. 2001;183 (Suppl 1):S1–S4. [PubMed] 2.
    3. See #2

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