A urinary tract infection is an infection of any part of the urinary tract, which includes the kidneys, bladder, urethra and ureters. Upper urinary tract infections are infections in the kidneys and ureters, while lower urinary tract infections involve the bladder and urethra. Infections higher up in the urinary system are generally considered more serious, with kidney infections the most serious. Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are very common, accounting for more than 8.3 million doctor visits in the United States each year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Upper urinary tract infections are not as common as lower urinary tract infections.
Symptoms of urinary tract infections depend somewhat on what part of the system is infected. General symptoms include a persistent urge to urinate, blood in the urine and a burning sensation while urinating. Signs of an upper urinary tract infection also include pain in the back and side, nausea and vomiting, fever, shaking and chills.
No matter where they develop, urinary tract infections are generally caused by bacteria that finds its way into the urinary tract. If bacteria that reaches the urinary tract is able to multiply and divide, an infection can result.
Women are much more likely to develop a UTI than men, with 20 percent of women developing at least one in their lifetimes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women who are sexually active are even more likely to develop UTIs. Other risk factors include diabetes and chronic illnesses that compromise the immune system, kidney stones and using diaphragms and spermicides for birth control.
Antibiotics are the standard treatment for both upper and lower urinary tract infections. Among the antibiotics that can be used to treat UTIs are amoxicillin, levofloxacin, ciprofloxacin, nitrofurantoin and sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim. In most patients, symptoms will begin to dissipate within a day or two after starting antibiotics, with the infection generally clearing up in just a few days. However, most doctors will prescribe a longer course of antibiotics, and it's important to take all of the prescribed medication even if you are feeling better. In the most severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary so patients can receive antibiotics intravenously.
Some people, women in particular, frequently develop urinary tract infections, typically more than once a year. These women may be prescribed longer courses of antibiotics when they develop an infection or may be prescribed antibiotics to start taking as soon as they recognize symptoms of a UTI. Women who frequently develops UTIs as a result of sexual activity may be given doses of antibiotics to be taken immediately after having sex to prevent an infection from developing.