When you have a urinary tract infection (UTI), every trip to the bathroom can be a pain – literally. You might find that it hurts to pee, you feel the urge to pee more frequently or you have a combination of different symptoms. So how do you know if you have a UTI or if it could be something more serious?

Fortunately, UTIs often have common symptoms that make them easy to diagnose, which can help you find treatment options that work for you. Below, we’ll cover the symptoms of a UTI, what causes them, and your care options if you think you might have one.

What is a UTI?

A UTI occurs when bacteria enter your urethra, causing an infection in your urinary tract. E. coli bacteria, which is found in your intestines, is usually the main cause of UTIs, but other bacteria can cause them too. UTIs are a very common type of infection and more frequently occur in women.

In fact, experts believe as many as 60% of women will get a UTI in their lifetime, compared to only 10% of men. This is because women’s urethras are shorter and closer to the vagina and anus, so they’re more susceptible to bacteria entering the urinary tract.

Types of UTIs

There are three different types of UTIs that affect different parts of your urinary tract. UTIs most commonly occur in your urethra or bladder, but they can also occur in other parts of your urinary tract.

  • Urethra infections (urethritis) – These generally occur due to infection from bacteria that is spread to your urethra, causing your urethra to become inflamed.
  • Bladder infections (cystitis) – Most bladder infections develop when bacteria enter your urinary tract through your urethra and move to your bladder, causing your bladder to become swollen and irritated.
  • Kidney infections (pyelonephritis) – Kidney infections occur when bacteria travel from your urethra or bladder to one or both of your kidneys.
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV) – BV is not a UTI, but the two do share some similar symptoms. With BV, healthy bacteria are replaced by harmful bacteria in your vagina, and if you experience BV frequently, it can cause recurrent UTIs.

UTI symptoms

Bladder and urethra infections are both lower urinary tract infections and share some similar symptoms, but they do have differences because they affect different areas of the urinary tract. A kidney infection is an upper UTI and less common than lower UTIs, but a kidney infection can be more serious.

Symptoms of a bladder infection

  • Frequent urge to urinate
  • Strong urge to urinate even when your bladder is empty
  • A sensation of pressure or that your bladder is full
  • Cramping in your abdomen or back
  • Strong-smelling or cloudy urine
  • Low-grade fever
  • Blood in your urine
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

Symptoms of a urethra infection

  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Difficulty starting urination
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling a strong urge to urinate even when your bladder is empty
  • Itching, discomfort and pain even when not urinating
  • Pain during sex
  • Blood in your urine or semen (in men)
  • Discharge from urethral opening or vagina

Symptoms of a kidney infection

In some cases, if a UTI is left untreated or becomes more severe, it can turn into a kidney infection. Kidney infections are very serious and can lead to dangerous complications. They require prompt medical care, often requiring antibiotic treatment and sometimes IV fluids. Call your doctor if you or your child are experiencing any of these additional symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Back, side or stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Symptoms of UTIs in kids

It can be difficult to recognize when your child has a UTI because they may not be able to understand or communicate what they’re feeling. Look for the same symptoms in kids as you would in adults: frequent urination, bloody or cloudy urine, fever, nausea or complaints of pain. Call your child’s pediatrician if you have questions or concerns about a possible UTI.

Can you have a UTI without symptoms?

Yes. Some UTIs can be so mild that you won’t experience symptoms, and the infection may resolve on its own. However, most of the time when you have a UTI, you’ll experience a symptom.

In some cases, bacteria are present in the bladder and in the urine, but they don’t cause symptoms. This is known as asymptomatic bacteriuria, and it isn’t technically a UTI because it isn’t an infection. If someone with asymptomatic bacteriuria is not experiencing any discomfort because of it, doctors will usually choose not to prescribe antibiotics. This condition is common among the elderly and those who frequently use catheters.

Is it possible to have more than one UTI in a short period of time?

Yes. Recurrent or chronic UTIs are defined as two or more infections within six months, or three or more infections within 12 months. Recurrent UTIs are far more common in women.

If you think you’re experiencing chronic or recurrent UTIs, it may be time to see a specialist. Women’s health specialists like OB-GYNs and urogynecologists are both experts in chronic UTIs. OB-GYNs specialize in female reproductive health overall, and urogynecologists specialize in female urinary and pelvic floor disorders.

A urologist – a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating urinary tract and reproductive system conditions for men, women and children – may also be able to help.

What causes UTIs?

A UTI is a blanket term for an infection caused by bacteria that occurs anywhere in the urinary tract. Your urinary tract is the path that your body uses to get rid of the excess water and waste products filtered out by your kidneys. Your urinary tract includes:

  • The kidneys, where urine is created
  • The ureters, where urine travels from the kidneys to the bladder
  • The bladder, where urine is stored
  • The urethra, where urine leaves the body

Urethra and bladder infections most commonly occur due to bacteria, but other factors can leave you vulnerable to a bacterial infection. For instance, certain sexually transmitted bacterial infections and some viral infections can cause a urethra infection.

Certain types of medication or hygiene products, like feminine hygiene spray, can cause a bladder infection. And while a kidney infection usually occurs because of urethra and bladder infections, it can also occur if you have kidney stones, a weakened immune system or diabetes.

Misconceptions about UTIs

Urinary tract infections can have some negative associations, and it’s easy to make harmful assumptions about why they happen. Separating fact from fiction can help you slow the spread of false information, prevent UTIs and keep yourself healthy.

Misconception #1: Only people who are sexually active get UTIs

While sex is a common cause of UTIs, it isn’t the only one. Bacteria can make their way into the urinary tract for all kinds of different reasons. UTIs can also be caused by menopause, pregnancy, untreated diabetes, catheter use, kidney stones, holding your pee for too long and not wiping front to back.

Misconception #2: UTIs are contagious

You can’t pass your UTI on to someone else through sex or any other activity. UTIs aren’t contagious, nor are they considered sexually transmissible. However, an existing UTI can be aggravated by the physical act of sex, so it’s a good idea to put a pause on intercourse until your infection has cleared.

Misconception #3: UTIs always need to be treated with antibiotics

Most UTIs are considered uncomplicated, meaning the person who has one is healthy and has a functional and anatomically normal urinary tract. These types of UTIs can resolve on their own with the help of at-home UTI remedies like drinking cranberry juice and extra hydration, but while every infection may not need antibiotics, many still do.

That’s why it’s important to monitor your symptoms. If they don’t go away, visit a primary care or women’s health doctor. If left untreated, UTIs can develop into severe infections that cause complications. Your doctor will be able to assess your condition and know the difference.

How to lower your risk of UTIs

UTI symptoms can be uncomfortable and disrupt your daily life. While at-home care and antibiotics can relieve symptoms, there are some ways you can proactively reduce your risk (especially for women).

  • Urinate frequently, as soon as you feel the need to. Your bladder’s main job is to rid your body of waste in the form of urine, so ensure you’re emptying your bladder fully when you go so bacteria from that waste don’t have a chance to multiply.
  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water, to help flush wastewater and bacteria out of your body.
  • Wipe hygienically from front to back, especially after a bowel movement, so no fecal bacteria can reach the urethra.
  • Avoid using cleansing products like wipes, sprays or deodorants in the genital area – doctors deem them unnecessary, and they can cause irritation.
  • Urinate soon after sexual intercourse to remove bacteria from the urethra and lower the chance of infection.

Even through proper care to prevent infections, it’s still possible to get a UTI. That’s when it’s time to use at-home remedies or see a doctor.

If you’re experiencing any UTI symptoms, don’t ignore them. While it’s possible for a UTI to go away without antibiotics, we still recommend that you make an appointment with a primary care doctor or clinician. Primary care providers can diagnose and treat a range of conditions, including UTIs.

You can also get UTI treatment online 24/7 through Virtuwell. Certified nurse practitioners will review your symptoms and send you a personalized treatment plan. And if antibiotics are prescribed, we’ll send a prescription to the pharmacy of your choice, and you’ll likely be feeling better quickly.

If you’re experiencing chronic or recurrent UTIs, it’s likely time to see a specialist like an OB-GYN, urogynecologist or urologist – in addition to seeing a primary care provider or getting care online through Virtuwell if you currently have any UTI symptoms. If any of your symptoms include pelvic pain or if you feel achy, tired, chilled and feverish, go to an urgent care near you. These symptoms could indicate an upper UTI, which means an infection of the kidneys or ureters.