"Urinary tract infection" is a broad term that can be used to describe a bacterial infection of any part of the urinary system. The urinary system includes the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys. While most UTIs stay limited to the lower part of the urinary tract (the urethra and the bladder), it is possible for an untreated UTI to make its way into the kidneys, which can cause serious and even life-threatening complications.
The symptoms of a urinary tract infection will vary depending on which part of the urinary tract has been infected by bacteria.
A urinary tract infection of the urethra is referred to as urethritis. This is usually the first part of the urinary tract that becomes infected, especially in women. Anatomically, women are much more prone to developing UTIs because the urethra is located in such close proximity to the anal region, making it very easy for bacteria from the gastrointestinal tract to be transferred to the urinary tract through the urethra. The most common symptoms for urethritis include:
- A burning sensation while urinating
- Discharge from the urethra
If the bacterial infection reaches your bladder, then this is referred to as cystitis. This is the most common type of UTI, since most urethritis infections will quickly progress to cystitis. It is also more common for women to be affected by bladder infections, since women’s urethras are much shorter than men’s, giving the bacteria a shorter distance to travel before reaching the bladder. In addition to the symptoms of urethritis, the symptoms for this type of urinary tract infection include:
- Increased frequency of urination with only small amounts of urine being passed each time
- Painful urination
- Strong, persistent urge to urinate
- Strong-smelling urine
- Cloudy or bloody urine that appears red, pink, or cola-colored
- Pelvic pain in women
- Rectal pain in men
Acute Pyelonephritis Symptoms
Urinary tract infections are very easy to treat with a round of antibiotics and will usually clear up within a few days of beginning treatment. However, an untreated UTI will eventually progress to your kidneys, which is a condition called acute pyelonephritis. Symptoms include:
- Pain and tenderness in the upper back and sides
This type of infection is potentially life-threatening, so you should see a doctor immediately if you start experiencing any of these symptoms. Potential complications include permanent kidney damage and urethral stricture (narrowing) in men. You also will be at a greater risk for recurrent infections in the future, especially if you have already experienced three or more UTIs. Additionally, if the infection enters your bloodstream, you are at risk for sepsis, which is a very dangerous condition that can lead to dangerously low blood pressures, shock, and even death.
Pregnant women with UTIs are at a higher risk of the infection spreading to the kidneys, which will also increase the risk of premature delivery and high blood pressure.