Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Q: What do you do five to six times a day but never think twice about?
But if you have a urinary tract infection, or UTI, you’re probably thinking about peeing quite a lot. Why? Because it stings when you go — yow! You also might have the feeling that you need to go to the bathroom all the time. And when you do, phew! Your pee smells bad.
These changes occur because bacteria have caused an infection somewhere in your urinary tract. Let’s find out more.
What Exactly Is a Urinary Tract?
Your urinary tract is actually a system made up of these main parts:
- two kidneys
- two ureters (say: yur-uh-turz)
- urethra (say: yoo-ree-thruh)
All day long, the kidneys clean waste products from your blood. The waste becomes urine (pee), which drips into the ureters (long, thin tubes, one connected to each kidney). From there, the urine travels through the ureters down to the bladder.
When it’s empty, your bladder is about the same size as an empty balloon. It looks like one, too! Then the bladder slowly fills up with the urine coming from the kidneys. When you have about a cup (237 milliliters) of urine in your bladder, your brain tells you it’s time to find a bathroom.
Once you’re ready to pee, you relax a set of muscles at the bottom of your bladder. That lets the urine rush into the urethra, a tube that leads from your bladder out of your body.
Ahhh! That feels better.
Urinary Tract Troubles
Girls are more likely than boys to get a UTI. That’s because their urethras are much shorter than boys’ urethras. The shorter urethra means bacteria can get up into the bladder more easily and cause an infection there.
Some of the bacteria that cause UTIs normally live in your intestines. Each time you have a bowel movement (poop), some of these bacteria come out of your body. If they aren’t wiped away properly, they stay on your skin. In girls, this means they can grow near the opening of the urethra because their urethras are closer to where they wipe. From there, bacteria can get inside the urethra, causing irritation to the urethra. This is called urethritis (say: yur-ih-thrye-tus).
It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from the urethra to the bladder. If the bacteria go there, they can cause a bladder infection, which is a type of UTI. You may also hear a bladder infection called cystitis (say: sis-tye-tus), which really means an irritation of the bladder.
Sometimes the harmful bacteria keep spreading. From the bladder, they may head into one of the ureters and climb up into a kidney. This type of UTI is called pyelonephritis (say: pye-loh-nih-frye-tus), or a kidney infection, and it’s serious because it can damage the kidneys and make you very sick.
How Do I Know if I Have a UTI?
You may notice signs of a urinary tract infection before anyone else can see there’s anything wrong with you. That’s why it’s important to talk with a parent if you’re having peeing problems. Ask yourself these questions and share your answers with your mom or dad:
- Does it hurt or sting when you pee?
- Do you have to go to the bathroom much more often than normal?
- Can you only pee a little bit at a time?
- Do you have to get up many times in the night to pee?
- Do you feel pain, pressure, or a tickle in your lower belly?
- Is there blood in your pee?
- Is your pee cloudy?
- Does it smell bad when you pee?
These are signs and symptoms of a bladder infection, so based on your answers, your mom or dad may decide to call your doctor or take you in for a visit.
Also be sure to tell a parent if you have any of those symptoms, plus you feel feverish, have the chills, or have pain in your belly or back, just under your lower ribs. These are signs of a kidney infection and you should see a doctor right away.
What Will the Doctor Do?
First, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms. If your doctor thinks you have a UTI, he or she will want to test your urine. You’ll have to go into a bathroom and pee into a plastic cup.
Your doctor will give you special wipes to clean yourself off before you collect the pee. This is so your urine sample won’t contain germs from outside your body. If the doctor finds germs in your pee, it’s a sign of infection and he or she will want to be sure those germs are coming from the inside, not the outside. Some bacteria on the outside is normal and aren’t necessarily causing the problem on the inside.
One way the doctor can test your pee is to dip a special kind of stick into your cup of urine. The stick has specially treated paper on it and if it turns a certain color, it means you have a UTI. The doctor also can choose to send the urine sample to a lab for testing. If it turns out you have a bladder infection, your doctor will order some medicine for you to take to kill the bacteria.
You’ll go home, and take it easy, and you’ll start feeling better in a few days. You’ll also want to stay away from foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as cola or tea. Caffeine can irritate your bladder, making you even more uncomfortable.
A kid who has a kidney infection — with chills and a high fever — may need to spend a couple of days in the hospital. At the hospital, the germ-fighting medicine can be delivered more effectively through a tiny plastic tube inserted into a vein.
Once you’ve had a UTI, you’ll never want to have one again! To help keep those bacteria out of your urinary tract, take these steps:
- Keep clean. Wash your private parts every day when you take a bath or shower.
- If you’re a girl, always wipe from front to back when you go to the bathroom.
- Don’t hold it. If you have to go, go.
- When you’re thirsty, drink something, no matter how busy you are. Water and cranberry extract are two good choices. Those trips to the bathroom can help wash bacteria out of your body and cranberry extract may actually help prevent another infection.
- If you’re a girl, think twice about taking bubble baths because they can bother the urethra.
- Wear cotton underwear. Nylon underwear traps moisture near your body, especially when it’s hot outside. Bacteria love to grow in warm, moist places. Gross!
Reviewed by: T. Ernesto Figueroa, MD
Date reviewed: January 2012