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Signs that you might have a UTI

5 minute read
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Urinary tract infections can be painful — and they often need to be treated right away. Learn what to do if you think you have one, and how to feel better fast.

Erin Boyle

By Erin Boyle

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are an all-too-common problem. At least 60% of women and 12% of men will have a UTI at least once in their lives, according to the Urology Care Foundation. And kids can get them, too.

These bacterial infections affect the various parts of your urinary tract, including the urethra, ureters, bladder and kidneys. And you’ll know something is wrong when you get a UTI because it usually hurts to pee.

Read on to find out the symptoms and causes of UTIs and what to do if you think you have one.

What causes UTIs

To understand UTIs, it helps to know a few basics about your urinary system. Your kidneys remove waste and water from your blood, which then becomes urine, or pee. Urine is usually bacteria-free. It travels through thin tubes, called ureters, to your bladder. The bladder then stores that urine until it’s time to pee. When you pee, urine is carried out of your body through a tube called the urethra.

The urethra is the culprit in UTIs. Bacteria can enter your body through this tube and cause infection. It’s also the reason that women get more UTIs than men.

“The female urethra is much shorter than the male urethra, so it’s easier for bacteria to get into the bladder,” explains urologist Amy Pearlman, MD. She’s a men’s health specialist at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City.

The female urethra is also closer to the anus, where you pass poop that can harbor organisms such as E. coli bacteria. If you happen to wipe a little poop into the urethra after you pee, it can cause a UTI.

The female urethra is close to the vagina, too, which can sometimes contain bacteria — especially after sex.

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Risk factors for UTIs

Although UTIs can happen to anyone, certain factors place you at a higher risk.

Once you have a UTI, you’re more likely to get another. For 25% to 30% of women who’ve had a UTI, the infection comes back within 6 months, according to Harvard Health Publishing. UTIs also increase with age and are one of the most common infections in older people.

According to Dr. Pearlman, other factors can raise a person’s risk of UTIs. For women, they include:

  • Sexual activity
  • Using a diaphragm for birth control
  • Post-menopausal status

For men, these factors can raise the risk of a UTI:

  • Enlarged prostate, which can cause incomplete bladder emptying
  • Scar tissue in the urethra that leads to incomplete bladder emptying
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

For both genders, the following factors can increase UTI risk:

  • Immunosuppression (from diabetes, HIV, cancer or for people on steroids or chemotherapy)
  • Incomplete bladder emptying or urinary obstruction
  • Urinary tract stones
  • Using a urinary catheter

Signs and symptoms of UTIs

When you get a UTI, you usually know quickly that something is wrong. The most common symptoms include:

  • A constant urge to pee
  • Frequent peeing (it may feel as if you can’t empty your bladder each time)
  • Pain with peeing
  • Blood in urine
  • Lower abdominal pain/discomfort
  • Cloudy pee
  • Foul-smelling pee

If you think you have a urinary tract infection, call your doctor right away, says Vivek Cherian, MD. He’s a Chicago-based internal medicine doctor. You’ll need to get a prescription for an antibiotic to clear it up.

In some cases, a UTI might not cause symptoms. This is called asymptomatic bacteriuria, and it’s more common in older adults. Your doctor might find the infection while testing your urine for another issue. Older adults with UTIs might also feel confused and lethargic, Dr. Pearlman says, which aren’t common UTI symptoms in younger adults.

How you find out you have a UTI

Your doctor will have you pee into a container and then test your urine to confirm you have a UTI. A urine test (called a urinalysis) looks for things indicating an infection. A urine culture test can then determine the type of bacteria that’s causing your infection. This helps your doctor figure out which kind of antibiotic to prescribe.

It’s important to have these tests performed before you receive treatment to make sure that what you’re experiencing is actually a UTI.

How to treat a UTI

With your UTI confirmed, it’s time for treatment. There are 2 main types of UTIs: uncomplicated and complicated. Uncomplicated infections can often be treated with a 3-day course of antibiotics. This is the type that most adult women get, according to Dr. Pearlman.

“All UTIs in men are considered ‘complicated,’” she says. A man will also likely be treated with antibiotics. But older men might need to see a urologist to check for structural problems, especially if they get UTIs on a regular basis.

Make sure to take your medication exactly as directed, and don’t stop taking antibiotics before the dose ends. If you don’t finish the treatment course, the UTI could return.

Tips for preventing UTIs

What about drinking cranberry juice for UTI prevention? "The data is still being studied on that," Dr. Cherian says. “There is no definitive proof that cranberry juice can help prevent UTIs.”

But you can do things to reduce the odds of getting a UTI. Both Dr. Cherian and Dr. Pearlman recommend these steps:

  • Stay hydrated: This ensures you pee more frequently. Peeing can flush out bacteria before it causes an infection. Dr. Pearlman suggests trying to pee every 2 to 3 hours when you’re awake.
  • Pee before and after sex: For the same reason, it’s a good habit for women to pee both before and after intercourse.
  • Wipe front to back: For women, this keeps bacteria in the anal area from spreading into the urethra.
  • Practice safe sex: If you sleep with multiple partners, using a condom can help reduce exposure to sexually transmitted infections and possible UTIs.
  • Consider supplements: Some supplements might be useful in UTI prevention, such as certain probiotics. Ask your doctor for a recommendation.

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Additional sources
UTI overview: Urology Care Foundation (n.d.). Urinary Tract Infections in Adults.
Study of recurrent UTIs: Reviews in Urology (2013). “Management of Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections in Healthy Adult Women”
UTIs in older adults: Health in Aging Foundation (n.d.). Ask the Geriatrician: Urinary Tract Infections and Asymptomatic Bacteriuria.