What Causes Urinary Tract Infections?

Updated on September 16, 2017
Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

Kierstin is a UTI survivor who isn't sure how she did it. Thank you, modern medicine, thank you.

I'm like you—I Google everything before bringing it up in a panic with my doctor. Here's the thing—I'm not actually a doctor, and this article isn't meant to be a diagnosis or used as medical advice. Use this article to jot down ideas and talking points to discuss with your healthcare provider.


The first time I got a UTI, I rushed to the walk-in with the impression that they were going to tell me I was going to die. Sitting on edge of the exam table and sucking down a juice box, the doctor came in to gently break the news that I had a urinary tract infection.

I wish I could tell you that was my first and last but ha, nope. No. I have a weird shaped urinary tract or something because I dealt with this problem a few more times in the following year. Sucky for me, but good for you, because I learned a thing or two from my experiences talking with doctors, nurses, and of course, Dr. Google.

What Is a Urinary Tract Infection?

A urinary tract infection is just that—an infection of the urinary tract. It's caused by germs entering the urinary tract—usually through sexual intercourse or by being exposed to water with the germs in it, like the bathtub. The germs that cause urinary tract infections often come from the small intestine.

Basically, they're the germs in your poop.

Symptoms of a Urinary Tract Infection

Symptoms of UTI's vary from person to person but you may have a urinary tract infection if you're experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pelvic pain (women) or rectal pain (men)
  • A strong urge to urinate often, but when you do, not much comes out.
  • Pain when urinating (this can range from anything from a burning sensation to feeling like you're friggin' peeing glass!)
  • Cloudy or red-tinged (the presence of blood--it sucks, but it's common with a UTI) urine.
  • Strong or foul-smelling urine.

In some cases, a UTI can be without symptoms.

You may also experience flu-like symptoms that indicate a more serious infection (such as a bladder or kidney infection) including:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Shaking and chills
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Discomfort in the lower abdomen
  • Pain in your lower back and sides

Make sure to talk to your doctor if you're experiencing any of these symptoms when you go in to give a urine sample. Depending on the situation, most cases of kidney and bladder infections are still treated at home with antibiotics, but your doctor may instruct you to get more rest and be less active (including staying home from work or school) until your treatment is over to prevent complications.

What Does a UTI Feel Like?

A urinary tract infection usually causes the sufferer to feel pain and discomfort while urinating. It's kinda like peeing out a cactus, or glass shards.

Yeah, not great.

This pain is usually accompanied by the urge to pee constantly and discomfort in the lower abdomen or rectum.

Will You Die From a UTI?

Nope. But it is important to get a UTI treated early on because infections in the urinary tract can travel to your kidneys, causing a kidney infection which is not great and has the possibility to become dangerous. (I mean, your kidneys are pretty important, so...)

The Thing About Cranberry Juice

Hold up! Unless you're drinking 100% pure cranberry juice, you could be making things worse with all of the sugar in that juice.
Hold up! Unless you're drinking 100% pure cranberry juice, you could be making things worse with all of the sugar in that juice. | Source

Growing up, my grandparents always kept cranberry juice around. Thinking it was just some sadistic pleasure for them, I opted always for apple juice. In my adult years, I came to realize that the presence of cranberry juice served much of the same function as those individually wrapped prunes they had laying around—to prevent the not-fun-realities of getting older.

The thing about cranberry juice, though, is that unless it's pure cranberry juice with no sugar added, it won't do much to prevent a urinary tract infection. In fact, the sugar in the juice can hinder the prevention of UTI's because sugar exacerbates infections.

Instead, try taking cranberry capsules or finding pure cranberry juice online or at your local health food store.

What if You're Pregnant and Have a UTI?

Urinary tract infections are super common in pregnant women. Your doctor will likely culture your urine (insist that they do!) as pregnancy can cause your infection to be resistant to certain antibiotics. Though it's never great to have an active infection while pregnant, in most cases, with proper treatment, the baby is not affected.

How Will My Doctor Test for a UTI?

Drink up! Your doctor will do a simple urine test to test for a urinary tract infection. She may also send a urine sample to the lab to be cultured and find out exactly which bacteria is causing your specific infection. This will aid in choosing the proper antibiotic treatment.

Can I Test at Home for a UTI?

You can, actually! There are a couple of products that can be found over on Amazon, at Target, Walmart, etc. that test for urinary tract infections right from the comfort of your own bathroom. If you're a frequent flyer at the doctor's office this can be a helpful way to avoid the wait and know for sure before making an appointment.

Can You Treat a UTI at Home?

After getting a prescription from your doctor yes, you can. But if you have a urinary tract infection, you'll need to at least talk to your doctor first and find out what you can do to keep it from spreading to your bladder and then worse, your kidneys.

What to Avoid When You're Dealing With a UTI

During the treatment of a urinary tract infection, it's important to avoid the following:

  • Sugar. Sugar can slow down the healing of a UTI.
  • Intercourse. I mean, think about it. That's where all of the healing is trying to take place! Plus, infected females can infect male partners if protection is not used.
  • Baths. Baths are a big no-no as tempting as they may be, especially if you're experiencing a backache. The point is to keep bacteria out of the urinary tract.
  • Strenuous Exercise. Anytime you are fighting an infection, it's important to get extra rest and be kind to your body so it can be kind to you.

A Warning About Bactrim

Bactrim (or sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim) is a heavy duty antibiotic that can wipe out a UTI pretty quickly. It also contains sulfa, which many people are highly allergic to. Unless you've successfully used antibiotics containing sulfa before, ask your doctor about an alternative like Macrobid or amoxicillin—both of which also carry unpleasant side effects but have a lower percentage of allergic reactions—before settling on Bactrim.

One of the best ways to fight a urinary tract infection is a healthy dose of good ol' fashioned rest and relaxation.
One of the best ways to fight a urinary tract infection is a healthy dose of good ol' fashioned rest and relaxation. | Source

How do Doctor's Treat a UTI?

Doctors almost always treat a urinary tract infection with an antibiotic like amoxicillin, macrobid, or bactrim, to name a few. The reason to treat a UTI with an antibiotic, instead of naturally at home is that urinary tract infections can spread to the kidneys--a potentially (but not usually!!) fatal problem.

Once you've finished the course of antibiotics, your doctor will want you to come back in to give another urine sample to make that the infection has completely cleared.

Treating UTI's at Home

UTI's are often treated with an antibiotic. In addition, when you have a urinary tract infection, it's important to drink plenty of water to flush the infection out and to use the bathroom often, making sure that you are completely emptying your bladder. For women, this means bending forward a bit on the potty to ensure you've properly pushed all of the urine out of your bladder.

Preventing UTI's

You can prevent reoccurring urinary tract infections by keeping these things in mind:

  • Ladies, wipe from to back. Always. This keeps the germs that cause UTI's away from the urinary tract.
  • Urinate before and after intercourse to flush away any germs that may have entered.
  • Avoid baths, but when you just can't stay away, urinate afterward (in the toilet, of course...)
  • Don't hold your pee!
  • Consider taking a cranberry capsule regularly to maintain the health of your urinary tract.

Have You Ever Had a UTI?

Let me know your tips and tricks for spotting UTI's quickly and how you prevent them in the comments below!


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    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

      Kierstin Gunsberg 4 days ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      E j, I'm not a doctor so I don't know for sure but just from my own life experience I would say that could definitely contribute to either the beginning of or the worsening of a UTI!

      In fact, according to the CDC, catheters can be a cause of urinary tract infections because bacteria can travel up the catheter into your body.

      Sometimes, to test someone for a UTI doctors will use a catheter to retrieve a urine sample (especially small children and the elderly who are difficult to get a urine sample from).

      If the latter is the case, and it's only been a couple of days since then and the start of the antibiotics then it's possible that you're just not feeling the affects of the antibiotics yet.

      Either way, if you feel like you have a UTI or that it's not getting better definitely give your doctor a call and let them know. When I was pregnant I had a UTI and was given an antibiotic that we figured out just wasn't working for that particular infection so when in doubt always call the doctor who treated you.

    • profile image

      e j Lee 5 days ago

      can you get a worse infection by keeping a catheter inserted and not bathing after being diagnosed with a UTI

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

      Kierstin Gunsberg 2 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Emily, that's miserable. I'm really sorry to hear that you're dealing with frequent UTIs. Have you seen your doctor about it recently? That's a lot of discomfort to have to push through on a regular basis.

      I would drink a steady flow of water and get into your doctor for an antibiotic. Simple amoxicillin works well for me.

    • profile image

      Miss Emily 2 months ago

      I am 60 y/o female, in good health. .I often get UTI's.. I've used AZO 2 week supply. I'm still having discomfort.

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

      Kierstin Gunsberg 8 months ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Glenis, I'm glad you could cure your UTI quickly. One of the things I've done over the past few years to prevent UTIs is drink apple cider vinegar mixed into my water. It sounds super gross but it's honestly not that bad!

    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 8 months ago from UK

      Had one for the first time and only time at the age of sixty nine. Apparently they are more common in older people because the lining of the uretha is thinner. Nipped it in the bud with over-the-counter medication from the pharmacy.

    • profile image

      Hbey k 2 years ago

      On the one hand, there many clinical cases which seem to be symptomatic urinary infections and which are almost treated with antibiotics.

      They are in fact chronical spastic bladders or nervouse bladders, and they are met, especially, in females.The urinary biological exam in often negative in this case.

      On the other hand many patients finish by being resistent to the use of some antibiotics when it is a real chronical urinary infection case.

      I think, when it is a chronical symptomatic urinary infection, the nervouse component existes.

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

      Kierstin Gunsberg 3 years ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Oh no!! Wow, that sounds terrible and embarrassing, haha. Thankfully, they have at-home test strips now to confirm BEFORE you go through all of that : )

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      I had a UTI when I was 18. I had such tremendous pain in my abdomen, I could barely stand up. Of course, I had no idea what it was. I ended up going to the hospital; the pain was that bad. A nurse told me she was going to take a sample of my pee. Okay, no problem - I expected her to hand me a cup and I'd crawl my way to the bathroom. Oh no, my friend. She gave me a catheter. I'd never had one before. As soon as she inserted it, I kicked her and the catheter clear across the room. What a rude awakening! I told her I would have been able to crawl to the bathroom. Boy, that was as painful as the UTI. Thankfully, that's the only time I had the experience. I've heard of some people that get them all the time. I can't imagine it.