What are UTIs and why do I get Them?

That burning sensation, the urgent toilet visits… What are UTIs, why are they common among females, and what’s the deal with cranberry juice?

What are UTIs and why do I get Them?
Reviewed by Dr. David Zlotnick, Chief Medical Officer at Antidote Health

Some conditions are impossible to self-diagnose. Some are really hard, but with enough experience you might be able to recognize them. And some… Well, some conditions can be recognized from the first symptom. Such are Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs). That burning sensation, the frequency and urgency of going to the bathroom, it’s hard to get wrong. Your mind probably jumps to UTI and in most cases, you’re probably right. What causes UTIs and why do we keep getting them? What is the difference between simple and complicated UTIs, why are they so much more common among females, and is cranberry juice really useful in treating them? Read all you need to know about UTIs.

U, T, and I: What’s a urinary tract and what’s an infection?

The name Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) is pretty self-explanatory; it is an infection in the urinary tract. Let’s break it down even more: 

We’re all familiar with infections, right? Germs, found literally everywhere in the air we breathe, the soil, and the water we drink, enter our bodies, invade tissues, multiply, and cause the body to react. Different infections of different areas in our bodies lead to different reactions and symptoms. In the case of UTIs, symptoms include a burning sensation when urinating, a frequent need to go to the toilet, urine that smells bad and looks cloudy, overall tiredness, lower abdominal pain, and sometimes fever and blood in the urine. It is always good to see a doctor as soon as symptoms appear. That is particularly true if you have a fever (or any other flu-like symptoms) or see blood in your urine, as those might suggest a greater problem. 

UTIs occur when a type of germ called bacteria enter our urinary system (yeast can also cause UTIs, but that’s pretty rare). The urinary tract is divided into an upper part, which includes our two kidneys and ureters, and a lower part that’s made up of the bladder and urethra. The kidneys filter out blood, remove waste, and make urine. The urine flows to the bladder through 8-10-inch-long tubes called ureters. It is stored in the bladder until it travels out of the body through the urethra. 

There are two important things to learn from this anatomic breakdown:

  1. Although UTIs in the bladder (called cystitis) are most common, they can affect any of the organs mentioned. Infections can spread upwards from the bladder to the ureters and even reach the kidneys. Pyelonephritis, or UTI in the kidneys, is considered more severe. It can cause lower back pain, fever, and more flu-like symptoms. 
  2. Anatomic differences are the reason why UTIs are so much more common among females than males. This is actually not a myth. According to the Office on Women’s Health at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, females get UTIs up to 30 times more often than males do. 

This divergence stems from the fact that the urethra in females is shorter, meaning that bacteria has to travel less to get to a suitable place to multiply. The urethral opening in females is also closer to the rectum, which hosts bacteria such as E. coli that causes UTIs.

What are the risk factors of a UTI? 

We know that females are more susceptible to UTIs than males. But just as our mama told us – no two females are the same. Some females are at a higher risk of getting a UTI (or experience it more frequently). They include those who:

  • Previously had a UTI
  • Are sexually active 
  • Are going through menopause 
  • Are pregnant 

Some risk factors are true to people of all sexes, including: 

  • Age: young children and older adults get more UTIs
  • People who don’t practice good hygiene 
  • People with any condition in the urinary system (such as kidney stones and prostate problems in males)
  • People with diabetes 

How to diagnose, prevent, and treat UTIs? 

UTIs are categorized as either simple or complicated. Simple UTIs, the more common of the two, occurs in females with normal urinary tracts. Think: premenopausal, young female. Complicated UTIs happen in abnormal urinary tracts or when antibiotics fail to treat the bacteria. Think: pregnant females or people with diabetes. UTI cases in males and children are considered complicated as well.

Two major differences between simple and complicated UTIs are the length of treatment and ways of diagnosing the condition. While simple UTIs are usually treated with a few-day course of antibiotics, complicated cases require a longer treatment period. Remember that antibiotics aren’t prescribed just to improve your symptoms, but rather to kill the bacteria that caused the symptoms in the first place. Therefore, to lower the chances of the UTI repeating, make sure you take the medicine as prescribed even after your symptoms disappear and you feel better.

Whether this is your first time battling UTI symptoms or you’ve experienced them before and were able to recognize the sensation, an actual diagnosis can only be made by a certified health professional. Testing is often unnecessary for simple UTIs, and a clinician might choose to treat it after hearing your symptoms. Other cases might call for a urine sample or urine culture. Those are distinctly different for the person working at the lab, but it makes no difference to you as a patient. 

In early stages, UTIs are very uncomfortable and irritating, but are rarely dangerous. They can usually be treated quickly and easily. But don’t let that lead to negligence. An undiagnosed and untreated UTI can lead to bacteria spreading to the blood, which may trigger the body to overreact (a complication called sepsis). It is rare, but there’s no reason to take the chance. 

Another important thing to keep in mind is that there are measures you can take in order to prevent UTIs from happening in the first place. Mind you, these are not bulletproof, but they are great sanitary traits to practice regardless:

  • Drink a lot and flush the bacteria away: Staying hydrated will make you go to the toilet more often, flushing bacteria out of the trinary tract before they can settle. 
  • Urinate after sex.
  • Wipe front to back.
  • Stay away from feminine sprays, douches, and colored bath products. 
  • If you are at higher risk of getting a UTI, choose showers over baths. 
  • And… Cranberry juice? 

So, are cranberries useful in treating UTIs? 

Just as every person who has a fever is immediately offered soup, every person with a UTI is offered cranberry juice. Why is that? Is there any scientific explanation or validation to this weird habit?

You might be interested to know that using cranberries to treat infection is not new. North American Indians historically used the American Cranberry for disease prevention. The assumption is that bacteria need to attach themselves to a host tissue to multiply. The idea behind drinking cranberries is to create an environment in which bacteria can’t successfully attach themselves to the lining of the urinary tract, causing them to be flushed out with urine. Cranberries don’t kill bacteria, but rather prevent them from finding a place to prosper and cause an infection.

Evidence about the efficacy of drinking cranberries to treat UTIs is limited and inconsistent. While some studies showed that cranberries helped decrease the risk of recurring UTIs by about 33%, other studies didn’t note any improvement (particularly in treating existing UTIs). The difference in conclusions can stem from many reasons, including quality levels of the specific study and the group that was tested. It is also possible that cranberries help fight one type of bacteria and not another. The decision on consuming cranberries lies solely in your hands. 

While the question of efficacy is still open, one thing is absolutely true – if you do decide to drink cranberries, stay away from the sweet stuff. Many cranberry juices contain sugar that (makes them delicious but also) might actually help bacteria thrive. 

Whether this is your first encounter with a UTI, or it is a recurring condition, it is crucial that you reach out to a health professional as soon as you feel the first symptom. Antidote Health’s certified clinicians are here to diagnose the condition as well as prescribe the medication you need to get better. Download the Antidote health app Today to explore Antidote Health’s Insurance plans or sign up for our Telehealth Services, all from the comfort of your home, at a time of your convenience!

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