If you have female anatomy, it’s not unlikely you’ve had a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, some 40 to 60 percent of women will develop a UTI in their lifetime — and UTIs usually don’t only strike once. “In adult women, UTIs are quite common, with women having about one infection every two years,” James Wantuck, MD, a physician and Chief Medical Officer at PlushCare, says.
Why? Kecia Gaither, MD, a double board-certified physician in OB/GYN and maternal fetal medicine, says UTIs “represent an infection caused by bacteria growing within the urinary system.” And it’s the makeup of the female anatomy that makes us so prone to contracting that infection: “Women have shorter urethra than men, which allow bacteria a shorter and easier pathway to the bladder,” Dr. Gaither explains.
One of the most common risk factors is sex — “Usually bladder infections arise from fecal contamination of the urethra, which occurs commonly when having sex,” Dr. Wantuck says — but UTIs can be caused in other ways, too. Dr. Gaither notes that anything put inside the vagina — including certain birth control methods — can be the culprit. “Anything requiring placement of objects within the vagina (causing contact with the urethra in the process) will facilitate a UTI,” she says. ”Therefore diaphragms, rings, [and] spermicidal jellies all have an increased risk of causing an inadvertent UTI.”
Aside from that, Dr. Gaither says other causes can be pregnancy (pregnant women’s urinary systems don’t empty as fast as they do in the “non-pregnant state,” allowing bacteria to build up); hormonal changes during menopause; recent trauma, surgery, or catheter use; diseases that affect the immune system, such as diabetes; diseases, like multiple sclerosis, that affect the musculature or nerves in the urogenital system; and kidney stones.
Luckily, there are steps you can take to avoid contracting a UTI. “It is always important that women urinate immediately after having sex, in order to clear the urethra of any bacteria that may have been introduced,” Dr. Wantuck says. And don’t hold your urine the rest of the day, either — make sure you void frequently, particularly if you’re pregnant. When you wipe, make sure to do so from front to back: “Wiping back to front inoculates bacteria from the rectal area onto the urethra, [potentially] causing a UTI,” Dr. Gaither advises. Outside of the bathroom, Dr. Gaither says to make sure you stay plenty hydrated (water can flush out the bacteria on its way out of the body via urination), wear cotton underwear (it allows the area to breathe and stay dry), and wash your genital area and hands thoroughly before inserting anything into the vagina.
Despite all of these preventative measures, though, there’s a decent chance you will still contract a UTI at some point — so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the most common signs and symptoms. If you experience any of the following, it could mean you have an infection.
1. Painful and Frequent Urination
If you’re going to the bathroom a lot, and only urinating a little when you do, it could very well be a sign of a UTI. “Ninety percent of the time when a healthy adult woman experiences painful urination and feelings of frequent urination, it is a UTI (assuming [she isn’t] experiencing any vaginal discharge),” Dr. Wantuck says. Dr. Gaither also notes that, if you have a UTI, incontinence may occasionally occur as well.
2. Cloudy, Dark, or Bloody Urine
Take note of the appearance of your urine after you go to the bathroom: Its look could be an indicator that you need to head to the doctor. “Many women who have bladder infections may notice that their urine looks cloudy or dark,” Dr. Wantuck says. “Some may even see blood in their urine.”
3. Strong-Smelling Urine
Sure, you might consider all urine to be “strong-smelling,” but if the odor of yours is even stronger than normal (or perhaps different, or foul), that may also be a sign of a UTI, Dr. Gaither says.
4. Fever, Nausea, Chills, and Fatigue
Though they’re not as common as the others, Dr. Wantuck notes that symptoms can include feeling tired or shaky, nauseous, or feverish, as well as experiencing the chills.
5. Back Pain
UTIs can spread, and when they do, you may experience pain in your back. “With a UTI that has ascended into the kidneys, there may be back pain [that’s] particularly sensitive when one taps on the back where the kidneys are located,” Dr. Gaither says.
If you experience any of the above symptoms and think you might have a UTI, Dr. Wantuck notes that most pharmacies do sell over-the-counter urine tests to help you determine if that is, indeed, the case. But it’s also a good idea to just consult your doctor, particularly if your symptoms are serious. “If you have a high fever (more than 100.3 F), back or flank pain, or nausea and vomiting, it may indicate something more serious and you should seek urgent medical attention,” he says.
And whether your symptoms are that intense or not, your doctor can diagnose you based on a urine test or your symptoms alone before helping you determine a course of treatment. “Fortunately, most cases of UTIs can be cured with a short course of antibiotic therapy,” Dr. Wantuck says. If you ignore your symptoms and the UTI goes unchecked, though, Dr. Gaither says it could lead to serious health consequences, including permanent kidney or bladder damage, preterm labor (if you’re pregnant), and a “very bad complication known as urosepsis, meaning a bacterial infection origination in the urinary system has gone all through the body, [which] can be life-threatening.” The bottom line: Don’t wait until you’re really sick or have a laundry list of painful symptoms before calling your doctor about a suspected UTI.