What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK
03 March 2023
Next review due March 2026

You may have heard of the term ‘UTI’ (urinary tract infection), or even had symptoms of one. But what causes a urinary tract infection and when should you seek treatment? Here, I explain what to look out for.

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What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection of your urinary tract. This can affect your kidneys (pyelonephritis), bladder (cystitis) or urethra (urethritis). Sometimes, the infection can spread from one area of your urinary tract to another. Most of the time, the term UTI is used to describe an infection of your bladder or kidneys.

If you have at least two UTIs in six months, or three or more UTIs in 12 months, this is known as a recurrent UTI.

An image showing the location of the bladder and surrounding structures

What is the main cause of a UTI?

UTIs are usually caused by bacteria entering your urinary system from your gut. This is known as cross-contamination, which is when bacteria are transferred from one place to another by mistake. For example, wiping back to front after you pee can move bacteria across your skin from your anus to your urethra. This increases the risk of cross-contamination and could cause a UTI.

Most urinary tract infections in adults are caused by a bacteria called Escherichia coli. In your gut, E coli doesn’t normally cause infection – but when it enters your urethra it can cause a UTI. UTIs are common and can affect people of all ages, but they’re most common in women aged 20 to 50 years old.

Pregnancy, diabetes, a history of UTIs, and sexual activity – especially with a new partner or when using spermicide – can increase the risk of a UTI. Taking antibiotics can lead to the spread of E Coli in the vagina, and from there it can move to the urinary tract. You may also develop a UTI if you have a catheter.

What are the main symptoms of a UTI?

Your symptoms might vary depending on your age, where the infection is, and how severe it is. Symptoms of a UTI include:

  • needing to pee more often than usual
  • needing to pee at night more than you usually do
  • pain in your lower tummy near your pubic bone (suprapubic pain)
  • a burning or tingling sensation when you pee
  • the feeling that you need to pee urgently
  • your pee might smell strange, look cloudy, or have blood in it

How are UTIs treated?

For people with mild symptoms, some UTIs may clear up on their own after a few days and without antibiotics. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, can provide relief from pain or discomfort.

But if your symptoms don’t go away, or get worse, you might need to see a healthcare professional such as a pharmacist or GP. A pharmacist can provide advice, including when you need to see a GP.

Your GP will ask about your medical history and test a urine (pee) sample. If you have a UTI, they may prescribe a course of antibiotics, which should resolve your symptoms after a few days. If your symptoms are mild, your GP may prescribe back-up antibiotics. These can be taken if your symptoms don’t improve after two days or get worse.

How can you prevent a UTI?

Although not all UTIs can be prevented, you can reduce your risk of infection by avoiding known risk factors, such as products containing spermicide.

You may find that the following steps help prevent the spread of bacteria:

  • try to pee regularly - at least every four hours while you’re wake
  • pee as soon as you can after sexual activity
  • after using the loo, always wipe front to back

If you have recurrent UTIs, your GP may prescribe long-term antibiotics to try and prevent future infections.

There’s no conclusive evidence to show that cranberry products, such as cranberry juice, can treat or prevent a UTI. But drinking enough fluids can help prevent dehydration, and could reduce the risk of recurrent UTI by flushing out the bacteria. One way to check how hydrated you are is to look at the colour of your pee. It should be very pale yellow.

You can’t predict when you might want to see a GP, but you can be ready for when you do. Our GP subscriptions are available to anyone over 18 and give you peace of mind, with 15-minute appointments when it suits you at no extra cost.

Dr Luke Powles
Dr Luke Powles
Associate Clinical Director, Health Clinics Bupa Global and UK



Sheila Pinion, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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