Woman holding her stomach while on the toilet

Urinary tract infections (UTI) can interfere with daily life, intimacy and even land you in hospital. What exactly are they and how can you try and avoid the nasty symptoms?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the urinary system. Most UTIs are caused by E. coli bacteria, usually from the bowel. These bacteria are perfectly normal in the bowel but when they move across to the urinary system can result in an infection.

Symptoms to look out for:

  • Pain, discomfort or a ‘burning’ feeling when urinating (weeing)
  • Needing to urinate more often, or urgently
  • Pain in the lower abdomen or back
  • Urine that looks cloudy or has an unpleasant smell
  • Only being able to urinate a few drops at a time
  • Fever, feeling like vomiting, vomiting, feeling shaky (in serious cases).

What to do

If you think you have a UTI go straight to your doctor. They will be able to rule out other causes and prescribe treatment. The treatment for UTIs often involves antibiotics, but these are only recommended if you are having symptoms.

Are UTIs serious?

It is important to get the right medical advice and treatment for a UTI. In some cases, the infection can spread to the kidneys or cause other serious problems.

How common are UTIs?

UTIs are very common. About one in two women will develop at least one UTI in their lifetime. Women are eight times more likely to have a UTI than men. In women, the urethra is shorter and is closer to the anus. This means the bacteria can spread more easily. However, UTIs in men are classified as complicated. Frequent UTIs in men could be a sign of other problems. It is important to have a GP make sure the bladder is emptying properly.

Incontinence and UTIs

Wearing incontinence products that have been soiled with faecal matter (poo) makes it easier for the normal bacteria in faeces to enter the urinary system and potentially cause a UTI. It is important to change soiled pads, pants and underwear as soon as possible.

People with a urinary catheter are more likely to experience UTIs because they have a foreign body going into their bladder. Anyone who has a permanent indwelling catheter will have bacteria present at some stage. This doesn’t have to mean that the bacteria are a problem or will cause UTI symptoms. Your doctor can discuss other options such as intermittent self-catheterisation with you.

Some people may experience incontinence as a symptom of a UTI. If you have a UTI, the bladder can become more unstable and create a feeling of urinary urgency, with or without leakage. A good fluid intake to make the urine less acidic may help these symptoms.

Lifestyle changes to try

  • Drink enough fluid. Your urine should be a pale yellow colour. This is especially important if you have a urinary catheter.
  • Practice good toilet hygiene. Wash your hands and always wipe your bottom from front to back after emptying your bowel.
  • Empty the bladder after sexual intercourse if you find this has triggered UTIs in the past.
  • Make sure you sit down on the toilet properly and allow enough time for your bladder to empty properly. This includes men, if you have trouble emptying your bladder.
  • Go to the toilet when your bladder feels full. You should be able to hold on to reach the toilet.
  • Take steps to avoid constipation. Constipation can prevent your bladder from emptying properly. You have a greater risk of developing a UTI if your bladder does not empty properly.

Will these tips work for everyone?

No, there are some people who are simply more likely to have UTIs. It is not fully understood why this may be.

Some people experience repeated UTIs. These cases are called recurrent UTIs and are diagnosed by a medical practitioner. Lifestyle changes such as those listed above may be useful for some people but not others.

Some people will have bacteria in their urine if it is tested but experience no symptoms of an infection. This is called asymptomatic bacteriuria and is a common finding, particularly in older people. It does not usually need antibiotic treatment.

Speak to your GP about a referral to a specialist urogynaecologist or urologist to make sure nothing has been missed.

Caitlin’s story

Caitlin Daly, NSW, has dealt with UTIs since she was only five years old. Read her story.

This story was first published in Bridge magazine. Subscribe to Bridge online.