Many women are all too familiar with the dreaded urinary tract infection (UTI). Just the term alone can evoke cringe-worthy memories of the trademark burning sensation and never-ending pesky urge to pee. But the fact of the matter is, you can drink all the cranberry juice in the world (more on that later) and still be prone to getting a UTI. These infections are very common (especially in females), affecting one out of every five women in their lifetime.

But first thing’s first: What exactly is a UTI? A UTI (sometimes called a bladder infection) is caused by outside bacteria that get into the urinary system, resulting in infection and inflammation. It can affect any part — the kidneys, bladder, ureters and urethra — but the majority of infections involve the lower urinary tract (bladder and urethra). While typical UTIs can certainly be annoying and painful, serious consequences may occur if a UTI spreads to your kidneys.

Symptoms of a Urinary Tract Infection

Urinary tract infection symptoms to watch out for may include some or all of the following:

  • A painful or burning sensation when urinating.
  • A strong, persistent urge to urinate often (but when you go, very little comes out).
  • Urine that smells abnormally strong (or carries an ammonia-like scent) or has a milky or cloudy appearance.
  • Urine that looks red or bright pink (signaling blood in the urine).
  • Pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen that almost feels like cramps.

Note that some UTIs may carry very minor symptoms (or even none at all), which is why it’s important to continue to have regular checkups with your gynecologist and primary care physician.

Risk Factors of a UTI

It’s not uncommon for women to have more than one UTI in their lifetime. You may be at a greater risk for a UTI if you:

  • Are sexually active. Intercourse can move germs that cause UTIs from other areas, such as the vagina, to the urethra. Having a new sexual partner may also increase the risk.
  • Are pregnant. Hormones from pregnancy can change the type of bacteria in the urinary tract, possibly leading to a UTI.
  • Have been through menopause. Loss of estrogen can cause changes in the urinary tract, making you more susceptible to infection.
  • Use certain types of birth control. Women who use diaphragms and/or spermicidal agents, which can kill good bacteria, may be at higher risk.
  • Have a suppressed immune system. Those with diabetes and other diseases that impair the immune system can be at greater risk.
  • Use a catheter. Those who use a catheter because they can’t urinate on their own can have an increased risk.

UTI Diagnosis & Treatment

You guessed it: Diagnosing a urinary tract infection can be done via the classic pee-in-a-cup test. After obtaining a clean sample of your urine, your doctor or nurse will test it for bacteria, which may take a few days. If you suffer from frequent UTIs (two or more in six months or four or more within a year), additional testing may be needed.

As for treatment, uncomplicated UTIs can be resolved in just a few days with a simple prescription of antibiotics. Even if you feel better within a couple of days, be sure to finish taking all of the meds. If not properly treated, the UTI can spread to the kidneys, which can cause permanent damage or even be life-threatening.

Tips for Preventing UTIs

You can reduce your risk for UTIs by taking the following steps:

  • Drink plenty of liquids, especially water. Drinking water dilutes your urine and helps you go to the bathroom more frequently, allowing bacteria to be flushed out before an infection can occur. Studies show mixed results as to whether drinking unsweetened cranberry juice can truly prevent UTIs, but it may deter bacterial growth by preventing it from sticking to the wall of the urinary tract.
  • Wipe from front to back. Doing so after urinating and after a bowel movement helps bacteria from spreading to the vagina and urethra.
  • Pee before and after intercourse. This helps flush out any potentially harmful bacteria.
  • Urinate when you need to. Holding your urine for longer than three or four hours can give bacteria more time to grow.
  • Avoid the use of certain feminine products. Using douches, powders or deodorant sprays in the genital area can cause unwanted irritation and potential infection.
  • Change your birth control method. Diaphragms or condoms with spermicide can contribute to the harmful growth of bacteria.
  • Wear cotton underwear. Tight-fitting pants and certain fabrics can trap moisture, leading to excessive bacteria growth, which is why it’s a good idea to remove wet bathing suits and workout clothes when you can.

Always speak with your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns.