How do Women get Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and What Can be Done to Treat Them?

If you’re a woman, there’s a reasonable chance you’ve already experienced, or will eventually experience, a urinary tract infection (UTI). Roughly one in five women will suffer with a UTI in her lifetime. If you’ve had one, this increases the chance you’ll get another, as recurrent urine infection in women is quite common. Read on to find out more about the signs of UTIs in women, how women get UTIs and get guidance on treatment and prevention. 

What is a urinary tract infection?

A is an infection of any part of the urinary system, including the kidneys, ureters, bladder or urethra. Urine isn’t sterile despite popular misconceptions, and naturally contains bacteria and its own microflora. Infection can occur when bacteria in the urinary tract is imbalanced. This imbalance is caused when certain bacteria, often from the skin or rectum, enter the urethra and the urinary tract. This type of infection is very common, especially among women, and it can be extremely concerning and painful. 

Chronic or recurrent UTI in women is also common, due to various factors including ageing and hormonal changes that can affect women.  

Urine infection in pregnancy can also occur, due to the physiological and hormonal changes the body goes through during this time. The complications of UTI in pregnancy can be severe and, if not treated promptly, can lead to an infection of the upper urinary tract (upper UTI). 

In most women, bacteria from the bowel such as E. coli are the primary cause of a UTI, but in younger women other types of bacteria can cause an infection. 

How Do Women Get Urinary Tract Infections?

Women are at a higher risk than men, and this has primarily to do with anatomy. The main cause of UTIs in women are the specific characteristics of the female urinary tract. The female urethra, (tube that carries urine from the bladder), is relatively short and is also located close to the anus. This makes it much easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract. But there are further causes also.  

For many women, UTI becomes more frequent during the menopause and, generally speaking, recurrent infections are far more common as women get older. This is because oestrogen levels decline with age.  

This can cause the walls of the urinary tract to become thinner and dryer. The protective mucous membrane, or mucosa, becomes less acidic, which reduces its ability to fight off infection. Therefore, oestrogen hormone treatment may be recommended to prevent UTIs in older women.

Symptoms of a UTI for women

Types of urine infection in women

Lower Urinary Tract Infection

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

Upper Urinary Tract Infection

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. This also highlights why it is so important to treat a suspected UTI promptly before it worsens. 

Treating a UTI in women

In most cases, a UTI in women can be effectively treated with antibiotics. 

Sometimes a urine test will be done to find out which type of bacteria is causing the infection. This can help identify the most effective antibiotic.  

In healthy women, mild infections can be fought by the immune system without the need for antibiotics, so sometimes your GP might give you a prescription for antibiotics but suggest you wait for 48 hours before taking them, in case your symptoms go away on their own. If you do start a course of antibiotics, its important to make sure you complete the entire prescription. 

For older women, oestrogen hormone replacement therapy may be recommended as mentioned earlier, but this is much less common. 

What can you do to relieve UTI symptoms?

Taking a painkiller, such as paracetamol, up to 4 times a day. This will help with some of the symptoms, like pain, fever and inflammation. Paracetamol is recommended over aspirin or ibuprofen. 

Place a hot water bottle or heating pad on your lower back or stomach, to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. 

How to prevent urine infection in women

  1. The most important method of prevention is to keep the genital area clean and healthy. 

  1. Staying hydrated is also important, but it’s a myth that you can treat a UTI by flushing bacteria out.  

  1. Finally, try to ensure you empty your bladder entirely, as bacteria can thrive in any urine that remains in the bladder or urethra. 

You may frequently encounter advice about how to prevent female UTIs, much of which has not been backed up by science — at least not yet. But there’s no harm in trying sensible ideas to see if they work for you. Below are some useful tips that might help you to prevent a UTI, which are more or less scientifically proven.  

A few tips on how to avoid UTIs 

  • When going to the toilet, wipe from front to back 

  • Try not to over-wash or use harsh soap on your sensitive genital area as it can cause imbalance and irritation

  • Use TENA wash cream for your intimate area, and TENA barrier cream for protection

  • Dry yourself thoroughly when washing or changing hygiene products, as bacteria thrive in damp conditions.

  • Use high quality, breathable TENA incontinence products which are safe and gentle to the skin

  • It is recommended to urinate after having sex to help flush away any bacteria that may have found its way to your intimate area

  • Getting enough vitamin D has a positive effect on your immune system

  • Locally applied vaginal oestrogen can be used, sometimes even in pre-menopausal women

  • Avoid condoms with spermicides, they may increase the risk of infection 

Here's how to empty your bladder completely

  • When going to the toilet, sit in a posture that relaxes the pelvic floor, leaning slightly forward with bent knees and feet resting on the ground or on a footstool 

  • When you have finished passing urine, stand up and sit down again a few times. This may encourage urine to be voided that was left behind the first time. 

If you want to continue learning, read our articles on living with bladder weakness and frequent urination in women. If you're struggling with incontinence or female UTIs and are looking for support, our range of products can make you feel more comfortable.