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Urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bladder infections are the most common type of infection that people in America receive outpatient treatment for every year. Roughly 50 to 60 percent of all women will get at least one UTI over the course of their lives. Understanding what UTIs and bladder and kidney infections are can help you identify symptoms and make more informed healthcare decisions.

What are UTIs?

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are infections that occur in any part of your urinary tract, the part of your body that produces and drains urine to remove liquid waste from your body. You can develop a UTI in any part of your urinary tract, including:

  • Kidneys, two bean-shaped organs located between the ribs and belly that serve as filters for blood, maintain electrolyte balance, and turn waste into urine
  • Bladder, a triangle-shaped organ located in the lower abdomen which serves as the storage area for urine and then contracts to release urine, so it can exit the body
  • Ureters, two 8- to 10-inch tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder
  • Urethra, the tube urine that travels through from the bladder to the outside of the body. In women, its opening is located in front of the vagina, and in men, it extends through the penis with its opening at the tip

UTI vs. kidney infection vs. bladder infection: what’s the difference?

Sometimes, people use the words kidney infection, bladder infection and UTI interchangeably, but they refer to different things.

What is a bladder infection?

Bladder infections are the most common type of UTI. Your doctor may refer to a bladder infection as bacterial cystitis, which means inflammation of the bladder caused by bacteria. For most people, bladder infections aren’t serious medical conditions, but they can cause very uncomfortable symptoms and do require medical treatment.

What is a kidney infection?

A kidney infection, or pyelonephritis, occurs less often than a bladder infection, but it’s much more serious. Without prompt treatment, a kidney infection can cause permanent damage to the organs or spread to the blood and trigger a potentially fatal infection. Most often, kidney infections arise when bacteria from another part of the urinary tract enter one or both of your kidneys. In other words, untreated cystitis may turn into a kidney infection.

UTI is a general term that describes an infection anywhere in the urinary tract. Bladder infections and kidney infections are both UTIs, but not all UTIs are bladder or kidney infections. You can also develop an infection in one or both ureters or in the urethra.

When urinary tract infections occur in the bladder and/or the urethra, they are called lower urinary tract infections. Infections in the ureters and kidneys are upper urinary tract infections.

What are the symptoms of a UTI, bladder infection or kidney infection?

Symptoms of lower urinary tract infections include:

  • Urinating more frequently than usual
  • Feeling a strong urge to urinate
  • Feeling as if you can’t fully empty urine when you urinate
  • Burning sensation when you urinate
  • Decreased amount of urine
  • Urine that appears cloudy or has a strong smell
  • Blood in your urine
  • Pelvic pressure or pain
  • Low-grade fever

Symptoms of kidney infections include:

  • Moderate to high fever
  • Chills
  • Pain in your back, side or groin
  • Pain in your abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Urinating more frequently
  • Blood or pus in your urine
  • Urine that appears cloudy or has a strong smell

Diagnosis of UTIs and bladder and kidney infections

As with all infections, you can’t tell what type you have just by evaluating your symptoms on your own. Your doctor will need to run tests to diagnose the problem. Normally, the first step is a urine analysis. You provide your doctor with a urine sample, and they test to see if bacteria, pus or blood is present in it. If it is, they will usually order a bacterial culture to look for the presence of microorganisms.

In many cases, urine testing is all that is necessary to diagnose a urinary tract infection. However, if you get chronic infections or the urinalysis doesn’t turn up any signs of microorganisms, more tests may be necessary, such as:

  • X-rays, MRIs or CT scans of the lower abdomen and pelvic areas
  • Voiding cystourethrogram, a type of X-ray where you receive an injection of contrast dye to make the urinary system stand out in the images. The technician then takes x-rays of your bladder when it’s full and while you urinate.
  • Ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to take pictures of the bladder
  • Cystoscopy, inserting a thin illuminated tube with a camera into the urethra to take photos and obtain a sample of tissue for a biopsy if needed

What causes a UTI?

The most common cause of UTIs is bacteria. While more than one type of bacteria can cause a UTI, Escherichia coli (E. coli) is often the culprit. When bacteria get inside of the urinary tract, your body takes steps to protect you from the threat and fight it off. This results in inflammation that you may perceive as pain or pressure.

Inflammation also leads to swelling, making it difficult for urine to move through the urinary tract. That’s why you may feel like you need to urinate often or like you can’t completely empty urine when you go to the bathroom.

Who gets kidney and bladder infections?

Anyone can get a UTI, but some people are more at risk for a kidney infection, bladder infection, or another infection of the urinary tract.

Women and UTIs

Women are far more likely to develop a bladder or kidney infection than men. One reason for this is that women have shorter urethras, so bacteria don’t need to travel as far to get inside of the bladder.

Another reason is the location of the urethra, which is not far from the vagina and the anus. Wiping from back to front instead of from front to back after you use the toilet can introduce bacteria into the urethra. Sexual intercourse can also force bacteria into the urethra.

Hormones may also play a role in developing UTIs. Changes in hormone levels that take place during pregnancy and after menopause can increase the risk of bladder infections and other UTIs.

UTIs in people with immune system problems

If your immune system doesn’t function properly, you’re more likely to develop a UTI than other individuals because your body can’t effectively fight the bacteria that end up in your urinary tract. Some potential causes of immune system dysfunction include:

  • Diabetes
  • HIV
  • Some types of cancer treatment
  • Medications that suppress your immune system to treat other conditions

Individuals with other medical problems

Underlying medical problems can raise the likelihood of you developing bladder or kidney infections, such as:

  • Enlarged prostate that blocks the passage of urine
  • Kidney stones that create a urinary blockage
  • Vesicoureteral reflux, a condition where urine flows from the bladder into the ureters and urethra
  • Conditions that require use of a catheter

People with underlying medical problems or immune system dysfunction may experience recurring UTIs.

How do you treat a UTI, kidney infection or bladder infection?

Treatment for a urinary tract infection, kidney infection or bladder infection usually involves taking a prescription antibiotic to get rid of the bacteria. Depending on the type of antibiotic and the severity of your infection, you may need to take the antibiotic anywhere from three days to a week or longer.

Because different kinds of bacteria can cause a UTI, not all antibiotics can treat all infections. Taking a leftover antibiotic you received for some other illness is unlikely to clear up the infection—and it can lead to antibiotic resistance, which can be dangerous. Take your antibiotics as prescribed—your symptoms may disappear before the infection is totally gone, so it’s important to take all of the pills you receive.

Your doctor may also recommend that you take phenazopyridine. This medication relieves urinary tract pain, pressure and discomfort and can ease symptoms of urinary urgency. You can purchase this drug over the counter as Uristat or a generic alternative. Prescription versions are also available.

Keep in mind that phenazopyridine doesn’t treat a UTI. If you believe you have a UTI, taking this medication to alleviate your symptoms isn’t enough to kill the bacteria. Your condition could worsen or spread into your kidneys if you try to just address your symptoms without treating the underlying infection.

Also, folk remedies like cranberry juice are not shown to be effective treatments for UTIs. The best way to deal with an infection is to see your primary care provider as soon as possible.

Forward makes UTI treatment easy

As your primary care provider, Forward makes treating UTIs and bladder infections simple. We give you the ability to obtain a prescription online and have the necessary antibiotics delivered to your door. If chronic UTIs and bladder infections are a concern, we can perform the diagnostic testing and assessments necessary to uncover the root causes and create a treatment plan to address them.

No long waits. No surprise bills. No copays — ever.

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