All About Urinary Tract Infections: Symptoms and How to Treat UTIs

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can affect any part of your urinary tract. Which is why there are different types of UTI, as we will mention in more detail below.  

While symptoms of a urine infection can vary (and are often very different in older adults), treating, as well as taking measures to prevent urinary infections, is often possible. Read on to learn more about what causes a UTI, as well as the symptoms and treatment methods available.

What is a UTI?

A UTI is a common type of infection that can affect the bladder, kidneys or urethra. Most likely, bacteria have got to these parts of the body, and there might be E. coli in the urine, which normally lives in the intestine and anus without causing any harm. But can lead to an infection, if present in areas of the body it’s not meant to be in. 

What is the difference between lower and upper UTIs?

The most common type of UTI occurs in the lower urinary tract, infecting the urethra and bladder. A UTI left untreated can spread up to the ureters and kidneys causing an upper UTI. 

Upper UTI symptoms are considerably worse, and may include back pain, nausea and fever. This type of infection is serious and can potentially damage the kidneys. Or even cause kidney failure. If left untreated, it can also lead to sepsis, which is when the infection enters the bloodstream. This is a dangerous and potentially life-threating condition, which requires intensive care.

What are the symptoms of a UTI?

In adults below the age of 60 years old, the symptoms of UTIs typically include one or more of the following: 

  • Pain or a burning sensation when urinating 
  • Frequent urination and constant urge to urinate 
  • Small amounts of urine each time 
  • Traces of blood in the urine 
  • Dark, cloudy or strong-smelling urine 
  • Feeling cold, but not usually with a fever 
  • Sudden urinary  

In an older adult (or an adult with a catheter) different symptoms can occur. These include: 

  • Shivering or chills 
  • New or worsening confusion 

Are UTI symptoms always the same?

Some older adults with a UTI who suffer from diabetes mellitus or have a low immune response can have seemingly unrelated symptoms. These can include general weakness, confusion, nausea, dizziness, sudden incontinence, or increased severity of incontinence. In these cases, it is important to know what's normal, in order to recognise the symptoms and seek diagnosis and treatment.

What help is available? How to treat a UTI

If you think you have a UTI, talk to your GP for medication and advice, as UTI treatment can vary 

In the meantime, to help ease the symptoms of UTIs, it is advised to drink plenty of water, and you can choose to take pain medication to make you feel more comfortable. 

However, if you or someone you care for has a UTI and have any of the following symptoms, you should seek an urgent GP appointment or dial 111 (in the UK): 

  • a very high temperature, or feeling hot and shivery 
  • a very low temperature: below 36C 
  • are confused, drowsy or have difficulty speaking 
  • have not passed urine all day 
  • have pain in the lower tummy or in the back, just under the ribs 
  • can see blood in their urine 

This is because these symptoms might indicate an infection to the kidneys, which needs urgent treatment. 

What causes a UTI?

UTIs tend to happen when harmful bacteria invade the urinary tract. Usually, the infection is caused by our own bacteria ending up where they don’t belong. Sometimes these bacteria can get into the urinary tract, which is near the rectal area, resulting in cross contamination.  

However, other bacteria and circumstances can be responsible for causing a UTI. 

There are also several factors that increase the risk of bacteria (like E. Coli) getting into the urinary tract, including: 

  • Having sex (more on this below) 
  • Pregnancy 
  • Conditions that block the urinary tract e.g., kidney stones 
  • Having a weakened immune system e.g., people with diabetes 
  • Not drinking enough fluids 
  • Not maintaining genital hygiene 
  • Conditions that make it hard to fully empty the bladder

Can you get a UTI from sex?

Having sex can increase the chances of getting a UTI, as bacteria in the anus or vaginal area may more easily find its way into the urethra, increasing the likelihood of developing a UTI. Having anal sex may further increase the chances of developing a UTI, as bacteria is more commonly found in or around the anus. 

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can cause UTI-like symptoms, such as pain during urination. Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, and Trichomoniasis can also cause an inflammation of the urethra, a condition known as Urethritis. STIs are contagious. So, make sure you get a proper diagnosis if you’re sexually active and notice these symptoms.

Is a UTI contagious?

UTIs themselves are not contagious, so you can't catch a UTI from another person. It’s also highly unlikely for anyone to get a UTI from a toilet seat. 

A UTI isn't an STI, so you can’t pass a UTI on to a sexual partner in the same way. However, the bacteria that causes a UTI can be transferred between partners during sexual intercourse. It is therefore recommended you wait to have sex until you’re symptom-free and have finished your entire treatment. 

Who is at risk from UTIs?

UTIs can affect any person at any age, but certain groups are at greater risk, for example, females. 

The main reason women are more susceptible to UTIs has to do with the female anatomy. The tube through which urine passes out of the body, the urethra, is shorter in women and is located close to the anus, meaning bacteria can more easily invade the urinary tract. 

Find out more about UTIs in women. 

Urine infections in older adults are also more common, as well as people with diabetes mellitus, and persons wearing a catheter. 

Other common causes of UTI include incontinence or not being able to empty the bladder properly, as bacteria can grow in the remaining urine, or in moist and damp conditions. Causes for not being able to empty the bladder properly include: 

  • Constipation 
  • Outflow obstruction (caused by enlarged prostate or prolapse) 
  • Damage to the brain or nerves that control bladder emptying e.g., stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, or nerve damage 
  • Side effects of some medicines 

Is there a connection between UTI and incontinence?

It is not unusual for people with urinary incontinence to have additional problems that contribute to a higher risk of UTI. 

Some examples include: 

  • Not being able to totally empty the bladder 
  • Weaker immune defence functionality 
  • Chronic illness 
  • Bowel

How to prevent a UTI?

The most important method of UTI prevention is to keep the genital area clean and healthy. Staying hydrated is important, too, but it’s a myth that you can treat a UTI by flushing bacteria out.  

Finally, try to make sure you empty your bladder entirely while urinating, since bacteria can thrive in any leftover urine. 

Tips on preventing a UTI

  • Good hygiene is the easiest way to prevent a UTI 
  • Wipe from front to back after using the toilet, to avoid transferring bowel bacteria towards the urinary tract 
  • Remove soiled products from front to back 
  • Don't over-wash or use harsh soap in your sensitive genital area as this can lead to irritation and kill ‘good’ bacteria 
  • Use TENA wash cream to clean, if the skin is fragile, and TENA barrier cream for protection 
  • Dry the skin when changing hygiene products since bacteria thrives in moist areas 
  • Make sure to properly hydrate throughout the day 
  • If you have problems emptying your bladder completely, make sure to sit properly, leaning slightly forward with your feet resting on the floor or footstool. You can also stand up and sit down a few times to get the last drops out 
  • Use high quality, breathable TENA incontinence products with a dry surface 
  • Vaginal Oestrogen treatment is often recommended to prevent UTIs – however this is only for certain ages/ types of patients. 

If you think you have a urinary tract infection, it's important to speak to a medical professional who can prescribe antibiotics to treat your symptoms and make sure it's not an STI. 

If you're also struggling with urinary incontinence, take a look at our products for women and products for men designed to manage bladder leakage. 

You can also seek specific advice on UTIs in Women and UTIs in Men.