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Getting to the doctor with the first symptoms of a UTI can avoid a number of complications, including kidney damage.

Having a urinary tract infection is more common than is pleasant to admit, especially in women. While men are also susceptible to the infection, they are far less likely to experience one, with only three percent of men falling ill from a UTI every year. However, with women being four times more likely to develop a UTI, and men’s infections tending to be more complicated, it’s important for both genders to recognize the signs and symptoms that should send them to a physician.

But how does a doctor determine if a UTI is present? What are the main ways to test and diagnose for these infections?

UTIs – the basics

An infection of the urinary tract typically occurs due to excess or foreign bacteria in the system. In women, the most common cause of a UTI is the entrance of bacteria through the urethra into the system. This is because the urethra in women is far shorter than the same organ in their male counterparts. Therefore, the external bacteria don’t have as far to travel to settle in and start proliferating.

In men, the most common cause is not properly emptying the bladder when urinating. There could be several reasons for this, including simply holding it when the urge to urinate sets in, an enlarged prostate pressing against the bladder and urethra and thereby narrowing the channel for voiding urine, or a blockage such as a kidney stone disallowing the complete voidance of urine.

A UTI can infect any part of the urinary tract. This includes the urethra, the bladder, the ureters, the prostate (in men), and the kidneys. Under normal circumstances, a short run of antibiotics will clear up both the infection and the symptoms. However, if the bacteria reaches the kidneys, patients may have to take antibiotics for two weeks or longer, or in the hospital via IV.

Symptoms of a UTI

For both men and women, the basic symptoms of a UTI are the same.

  • Pain and burning when urinating
  • Increased urgency and frequency in needing to urinate
  • Nocturia, or the frequent need to get up at night to urinate
  • Incontinence
  • Cloudy, thick, discolored, or foul smelling urine
  • Pus discharged from the urethra
  • Blood in the urine
  • Little output when urinating, despite urgency
  • Pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis
  • Low grade fever
  • Fatigue

If the infection has reached the kidneys, this list lengthens to include worse and more debilitating symptoms.

  • Body chills
  • High fever
  • Shivering and sweating, also called rigors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Extreme pain in the lower back and sides
  • Excruciating pain when urinating

These symptoms range from annoying to downright crippling, and the longer a UTI goes untreated, the more likely there are to be complications, including damage to the kidneys, sepsis, infertility, and even death. It’s important to see a doctor at the first sign of a UTI, with some of these symptoms occurring.

Diagnosing a UTI

When a patient visits their physician with a suspicion they have a urinary tract infection, there are several methods available to help the doctor make a definitive diagnosis to confirm or negate the patient’s suspicion. In some cases, if there’s a possibility that the infection is severe and has spread to multiple organs of the urinary tract, the physician may order multiple tests and procedures to determine the best course of action to treat it.

  1. Urinalysis. This is the first and most common test the physician will order when a UTI is suspected. A urine sample will be analyzed, probably first with a dipstick that confirms the presence of bacteria and then with a full culture, allowing the bacteria to grow so that the type is known. This allows the right antibiotics to be prescribed without a trial and error process.
  2. Blood tests. Blood tests can confirm if an infection has spread within your body, helping to confirm especially if the infection has reached your kidneys. Blood tests can also assist in ruling out other causes of the symptoms the patient is experiencing.
  3. Imaging. Just because a doctor has determined that a certain type of bacteria is causing the infection doesn’t mean he knows where the infection is located. Imaging tests are available to help locate where a patient has an infection. Imaging types include X-ray (sometimes a procedure called an intravenous pyelogram, which uses a special dye to help the physician see what’s going on), MRI, CT scan, and ultrasound.
  4. Cystoscopy. A long, thin instrument is inserted into the urethra, holding a camera that allows the physician to see the state of things inside the urinary tract.
  5. Digital rectal exam. This is something that could be necessary in men, due to the need to determine if an enlarged prostate could be the root cause of a potential infection.

Treating a UTI

Once the diagnosis is certain, physicians will typically prescribe a low does antibiotic for anywhere from three to seven days. When diagnosing a kidney infection, the dosage will be higher and can last for up to two weeks. While these will remedy the infection, they won’t immediately resolve symptoms. While the antibiotics are doing their job, it may be helpful to take something for pain to help manage the symptoms of the infection. Anything like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help keep the discomfort from interrupting daily activities and functionality. There are also oral analgesics that are meant specifically for UTIs, such as Azo. This same medication, as well as pain relievers, can also be prescribed in higher doses for greater effect should the patient still be suffering.

Conclusion

Regardless of the intensity of the infection or where in the urinary tract it’s located, physicians have the tools necessary to diagnose the issue. Getting to the doctor with the first symptoms of a UTI can avoid a number of complications, including kidney damage. Getting treated with the right antibiotic of the right strength for the right length of time will assure the entire infection dies, rather than a small amount being left behind to keep growing and returning.

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