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Urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women

Urinary tract infections, sometimes referred to as UTIs, are very common.

UTIs can cause discomfort and pain. Most urinary tract infections clear up on their own within four to five days, but some may require a doctor to prescribe a course of antibiotics.

In rare cases, a UTI can lead to complications, including kidney failure or blood poisoning.

Half of all women in the UK are thought to get at least one UTI during their life.

What causes UTIs in women

UTIs are a key reason we're often told to wipe from front to back after using the toilet. That's because the urethra (the tube that transports urine from the bladder to the outside of the body) is located relatively close to the anus. Bacteria from the large intestine, such as E. coli, are in the perfect position to escape from the anus and invade the urethra. From there, they can travel up to the bladder, and if the infection isn't treated, continue on to infect the kidneys. Infection of the bladder is the commonest cause of cystitis - inflammation of the bladder. Women may be especially prone to UTIs because they have a shorter urethra, which allow bacteria quick access to the bladder. Having sex can introduce bacteria into the urinary tract, too.

Symptoms of UTIs

To identify a UTI, keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • A burning feeling when you urinate
  • A frequent or intense urge to urinate, even though little comes out when you do
  • Pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen
  • Cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling urine
  • Feeling tired or shaky
  • Fever or chills (a sign the infection may have reached your kidneys)

Seeking medical advice for UTIs

Although most UTIs clear up on their own, seek medical advice if the symptoms are very uncomfortable or last longer than five days.

A urinary tract infection may also need medical attention if there's also a fever or a sudden worsening of symptoms.

Women who are pregnant or who have diabetes who get a UTI should also seek medical advice.

A doctor or nurse will carry out a urine test to check for bacteria before recommending antibiotics.

If further specialist testing is thought to be necessary, an intravenous urogram or IVU may be arranged to check the urinary tract.

Another option is a cystoscopy, in which a thin, bendy tube is used to look inside your bladder.

Treatment for UTIs

As well as prescribing antibiotics, a doctor will probably recommend drinking plenty of water to help relieve symptoms and avoid dehydration.

Methenamine hippurate is an alternative treatment for women who cannot have antibiotics. This treatment helps stop bacteria affecting the urine.

Paracetamol may be recommended for UTI pain.

In more severe cases, admission to hospital may be necessary. Here, antibiotics may be given through an IV drip.

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