What medical condition accounts for millions of office visits per year, primarily affects women, has symptoms that can range from barely noticeable to some requiring hospitalization, and is generally considered harmless by the general public? If you guessed urinary tract infection (UTI), you’re right.

An infection can occur anywhere in your urinary system (urethra, bladder, ureters, and/or kidneys). Symptoms may be mild or, if the infection progresses to the kidneys, can cause fever, chills, and pain. Women have UTIs much more frequently than men, and many of those will have repeated infections throughout their life. In fact, the Office on Women’s Health reports women may have as many as 30 times more UTIs than men.

How do I know if I have a UTI?

Some common symptoms of UTI are:

  • An urgent and/or frequent need to urinate, even if very little urine comes out
  • Pain or burning with urination
  • A feeling that urination did not quite empty your bladder
  • Abdominal discomfort or pressure
  • Pain in the back, upper abdomen, or sides
  • Men might also have rectal pain
  • Cloudy, dark, or bloody urine with a strong odor
  • Discharge from the urinary tract
  • Feeling sick, tired and shaky
  • Fever or chills if the infection has moved into the kidneys

What is a silent UTI?

Sometimes, a UTI can be present without any noticeable symptoms. This is most likely to happen to elderly women or people with diabetes or bladder catheters. Sometimes the only noticeable symptom in an elderly person is a sudden sense of disorientation or onset of delirium. This may be especially frightening for the person or their family, who may mistake the behavioral changes as symptoms of a stroke. This type of UTI is especially dangerous for elderly people, as the confusion or delirium makes them more prone to falls.

How is a UTI Treated?

A UTI is usually treated at home with antibiotics and medications to manage the symptoms or discomfort. Hospitalization may be required for more serious infections.

What can I do to prevent UTI?

There are a number of things you can do to lower your risk for UTI, including:

  • Urinate before and after sex to minimize the spread of bacteria.
  • Don’t hold your urine when you need to go.
  • Make sure you completely empty your bladder when you go. Women frequently do not.
  • Women should wipe from front to back after urinating. Wiping from the back brings bacteria from the anal area to the vaginal/urethral area, making infection more likely.
  • Drink plenty of water. It keeps you urinating, which helps flush out bacteria. If you’re drinking enough, your urine should look clear or very pale yellow.

It can also help to know if you have higher than average risk for UTI. Some factors that raise your risk are:

  • Gender. Women are much more likely to suffer UTIs.
  • Age. Especially women, who have a higher risk after menopause.
  • Some types of birth control, like diaphragms or foams.
  • Some medical conditions, like diabetes, multiple sclerosis, kidney stones, or spinal cord injuries.

If you are experiencing symptoms of UTI, it’s important to see your doctor for a diagnosis. They can test a urine sample to identify the bacteria causing the infection, talk to you about your symptoms and other symptoms to watch for, and together you can determine which treatment is right for you.