What Is a UTI, Exactly — and Why Do You Keep Getting One? A Urologist Weighs In

Illustration by Keila Gonzalez
Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Editors' note: We at POPSUGAR recognize that people of many genders and identities experience UTIs, not just those who are women. For this particular story, we interviewed an expert who generally referred to people who experience UTIs as women.

Chances are, at some point in your life, you're going to have this unpleasant but incredibly common experience: you go to the bathroom to pee, and within minutes, you feel like you have to go again — but nothing comes out. That's one of the classic signs of a urinary tract infection, a bacterial infection that affects more than half of people with vaginas at least once and many people repeatedly.

That said, a UTI can also be pretty inconvenient and uncomfortable, too. To better understand what causes a UTI, iUTI symptoms, and the best UTI treatment options (including UTI antibiotics), we spoke to a urologist to break things down. Ahead, here's everything you need to know about getting (and avoiding!) a urinary tract infection.

Experts Featured in This Article:

Suzette Sutherland, MD, is the director of female urology at the University of Washington Pelvic Health Center in Seattle.

What Is a UTI?

Your bladder is a warm, moist environment — the kind bacteria thrive in. So sometimes, bacteria that normally live on your body without much incident get into your urethra and migrate to your bladder, where they happily multiply. The overgrowth then causes a urinary tract infection, also known as a bladder infection.

UTIs are the most common outpatient infections, and people with vaginas get them up to 30 times more often than people with penises. "Women's urethras are just 1.5 inches long, whereas men's are eight, so bacteria don't have as far to travel to get to the bladder," says Suzette Sutherland, MD, director of female urology at the University of Washington Pelvic Health Center in Seattle.

Sexual activity can increase the odds of a UTI, due to the friction against the urethra allowing bacteria that have colonized that area to climb up to the bladder; that's why research shows that, while UTI risk tends to go up with age, the peak rate for uncomplicated UTIs (synonymous with bladder infections) — meaning, infections that don't spread beyond the bladder and respond well to medication — occurs in people between the ages of 18 to 39. (These are the years of maximum sexual activity, according to a 2019 paper published in Therapeutic Advances in Urology.)

UTI Symptoms

While the relentless urge to pee is the most common symptom, UTIs can also cause a variety of other side effects. Below, we've compiled a list of the most common UTI symptoms, according to Dr. Sutherland and the Mayo Clinic.

  • A strong urge to pee
  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Pressure in the lower abdomen, and smelly or cloudy urine
  • Urine that appears red or bright pink, signaling blood in your urine
  • Strong smelling urine
  • Pelvic pain

You may also encounter fever, pain in the upper back or neck, or blood in the urine, but those symptoms typically mean the infection has gone beyond your bladder and reached your kidneys and possibly resulted in a kidney infection — a sign to get to the doctor ASAP. You may also feel fatigued — another sign that the infection may have spread to your kidneys, per Penn Medicine.

UTI Causes

Urinary tract infections typically occur when bacteria enter the urethra and bladder, multiplying and causing a type of bladder infection commonly known as a UTI. There are certain activities and lifestyle choices that can increase your chances of developing a UTI.

  • Sex. Because bacteria are everywhere on your genitals, and your sexual partners', sex — especially penetrative intercourse — is one of the most common causes of UTIs, Dr. Sutherland says. "The best thing you can do to prevent the problem is pee after intercourse, which flushes out the urethra," she says. (Drinking a glass of water before can ensure you're able to go.)
  • Not consuming enough liquid. Aim for 64 ounces of fluid every day, Dr. Sutherland says. You should be peeing every few hours, and your urine should be light yellow when you go. "Emptying your bladder every three to four hours keeps your kidneys, bladder, and urethra flushed out," Dr. Sutherland notes.
  • Using a diaphragm for birth control increases the risk as well, so if you're prone to UTIs and you use this method of birth control, you may want to talk to your doctor about exploring different options.
  • Wiping from back to front after using the bathroom can also trigger a UTI, so be sure to go front to back to keep bacteria away from the urethra.

How Is a UTI Diagnosed?

The most common way to diagnose a UTI is via urine sample, according to the Mayo Clinic. If further confirmation is necessary, particularly surrounding what bacteria are causing the infection to determine the best medication, your provider may also follow up with a urine culture at the lab.

If you tend to get recurrent UTIs, additional testing may be ordered, including an ultrasound, a CT scan, or MRI to rule out a structural problem in the urinary tract, per the Mayo Clinic. Your provider may also perform a cystoscopy to see inside the urethra and bladder for further evaluation.

UTI Treatment

Some UTIs can go away on their own. If you notice the telltale signs and act quickly, you might be able to get rid of the infection without antibiotics, Dr. Sutherland says. In other words, yes, you may be able to treat your UTI at home. Not to mention, after a first UTI, about 27 percent of people with vaginas have a second one — so it makes sense to be proactive about protecting yourself. The key is to catch it very early and flush it out by drinking plenty of water, Dr. Sutherland says.

She also says that drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry supplements with 36 milligrams of proanthocyanidin (a chemical found in cranberries, which is thought to prevent E. coli — the bacteria responsible for most UTIs — from colonizing your bladder) may be useful when it comes to preventing UTIs altogether. While the science is mixed on the effectiveness of cranberry juice and supplements, neither are harmful to the body. So if you find that either works for you, that's great. But drinking water will likely be the more effective solution: a 2018 study of 140 people with recurrent UTIs showed that drinking an extra 1.5 liters of water every day resulted in fewer infections.

If the infection doesn't go away within two or three days of home treatment, see your doctor, who will test your urine for bacteria and, if necessary, prescribe an antibiotic. In people under 40, the symptoms typically subside within a day or two, but take all the antibiotics in the prescription to be sure it's really gone. Every once in a while, an infection is caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which requires more powerful antibiotics. "But most infections in younger women are easy to treat," Dr. Sutherland says.

Still, chronic UTIs can occur. In this case, UTIs may occur twice in a six-month period and/or three or more times in a 12-month period, symptoms remain even 24 to 48 hours after treatment, and the infection may last longer than two weeks, per Baylor Medicine. Chronic UTIs are often treated with "long-term, low-dose preventative antibiotics."

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones

Ginny Graves is an award-winning writer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work focuses on science, psychology, health, nature, and the human-animal bond. In addition to PS, her features have appeared in Time, Vogue, Runner's World, Men's Health, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Prevention, Scientific American, and National Geographic Adventure.

Alexis Jones is the senior health and fitness editor at PS. Her passions and areas of expertise include women's health and fitness, mental health, racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare, and chronic conditions. Prior to joining PS, she was the senior editor at Health magazine. Her other bylines can be found at Women's Health, Prevention, Marie Claire, and more.