Urinary tract infection is just what it sounds like – an infection anywhere in the urethra, bladder, ureters, or kidneys. Its severity can range from not noticeable to life-threatening.
The most common areas affected are the urethra and bladder, and more often in women than men. Some of the potentially noticeable signs include a burning sensation during urination or blood in the urine. Other obvious signs include a persistent urge to urinate, difficulty producing normal amounts, or even an odd odor to the output. Unfortunately, these are easy to confuse with many other medical problems. More definitive signs include bacteria in the urine, but detecting that requires medical tests.
Cystitis, a type of infection of the lower urinary tract, more often shows up as increased pelvic pressure and discomfort in the lower abdomen. Sometimes a low grade fever accompanies the condition. Painful urination is possible, too. The latter is more common with infections of the urethra.
Kidney infections, by contrast, (known as pyelonephritis) are typically more serious. They may produce upper back and side pain along with high fever. Shaking and chills are a common sign. Nausea and vomiting are usual symptoms.
The underlying cause of any of these is generally bacteria, in amounts the immune system can’t immediately combat. The bacteria may start within the body or result from invasion from outside. The organisms sometimes enter through the urethra and multiply in the bladder.
Cystitis is typically caused by E. coli, which are a common (and usually benign) bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract.
One reason women are more susceptible is the combination of the closeness of the anus to their more accessible urethra, and the shorter distance between its tip and the bladder. In women, the urethra is about 1 1/2 inch long, in men it is closer to 5-7 inches. Bacteria commonly inhabit feces and organisms can migrate from one place to another, especially through incorrect cleansing habits.
Despite common belief, urine is not inherently a good medium for bacterial growth. Unmixed urine is sterile. But outside the body it can mix with air, bacteria-laden water or underwear, and (not often, but sometimes) bathroom surfaces.
Intercourse is another common transmission route, particularly in women. Sexual activity encourages germs to travel through the urethra. Certain forms of birth control may also increase the odds of infection, if they’re not employed properly. A diaphragm, for example, may become unsterile if left out and not cleaned correctly. Some feminine care products may increase the odds, since they can irritate the urethra. Age and illnesses (such as diabetes) affect the odds, as well. Both can weaken the immune system.
Pyelonephritis (kidney infections) are more likely when cystitis is left untreated for too long, since the bacteria can migrate up the urinary tract. Diagnosis and treatment of this more serious form requires the immediate attention of a medical professional.