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When UTIs Become Serious: What You Need To Know

July 10, 2023 | By: Rebecca Roedersheimer, M.D.

Just because something occurs often, it isn’t necessarily harmless. A common cold can lead to a sinus infection or acute bronchitis. And urinary tract infections, which occur in 400 million people globally every year, can end up putting you in the hospital.

Yes, UTIs are common ­­– even more so in the summer, when warm weather makes it easier for bacteria to grow. But untreated, a UTI can cause long-term medical issues. If the infection spreads to the kidneys, for example, you can experience serious health problems. 

Here is how that can happen. 

When Bacteria Attacks the Tract 

UTIs are one of the most common infectious diseases in the United States. They occur when harmful bacteria, including E. coli, begin to grow in the urine.

Most UTIs are limited to the urethra and bladder and can cause pain, burning and itching. The symptoms normally last a few days when treated with antibiotics. 

However, because the infection is carried in urine, the kidneys are at risk, as well. About one in 30 UTIs leads to a kidney infection, which can be severe. People who suffer frequent bladder UTIs or whose urine is blocked by kidney stones or structural problem in the urinary tract are more prone to this complication. 

If not stopped, the infection can potentially spread into the blood stream. This is uncommon, but life threatening. 

How Do I Know if my UTI Is Getting Serious? 

The typical symptoms of a common (bladder) UTI include pain and/or burning while peeing, needing to pee more frequently, bloody or cloudy urine, and pressure in the lower abdomen.  

If the infection spreads to the kidneys, symptoms are acute. They can include: 

  • A high fever (above 101°)
  • Shaking and chills
  • Pain in the sides and back, at the waist, where the kidneys are located
  • Nausea or vomiting

If the bacteria spreads to the blood stream, your immune system could react dangerously, resulting in sepsis. Symptoms of sepsis can include fever, an accelerated heartbeat, confusion, clammy or sweaty skin, and trouble breathing. 

Sepsis is a medical emergency. If you suspect it, seek care immediately.

I Think I Have a UTI. What’s Next?

Diagnosing a UTI usually requires a urine sample. But if you experience recurring UTIs, advanced tests could be necessary to rule out abnormalities. These can include imaging (CT scans and ultrasounds), or a molecular urine study to identify hard-to-detect bacterial and fungal DNA. 

While antibiotics can knock out most UTIs, including those that lead to kidney infections, some cases may require hospital care and intravenous antibiotics. If the patient has kidney stones or an autoimmune disease, a hospital visit is more likely. 

Can I Reduce the Risk of Repeat UTIs?

Factors that elevate the risks of UTIs include sexual activity, changes in the bacteria that live in the vagina (due to spermicides or even menopause), and age, with older adults and children more susceptible. History also matters – if you’ve had one UTI, you are more likely to develop another. 

These easy tips can help keep unhealthy bacteria at bay: 

  • Keep your system flush. Drink plenty of water and unsweetened fluids. Regular urination will wash bacteria from your urinary tract. (Some studies indicate cranberry juice helps, as well.)
  • Pee after intimacy. Because the female urethra is close to the rectum, it’s easier for E. coli. to get in there during sex. Peeing right after intercourse can flush those bacteria out. (Also, always wipe front to back.)
  • Stand up to cleanliness. Take a shower instead of a bath. 
  • Use fewer products down there. Women should limit how often they use genital sprays, powders, and douches.

Understanding how common UTIs are will make them a less-common issue for you. Share these tips with friends, and help limit this preventable condition all summer long. 

If you have symptoms of a UTI or other urinary issue, you can tell us about them on our online symptom checker. Or schedule an appointment here

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