The urinary tract is composed of the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. All of these structures work together in an effort to remove waste from the body through the urine. The urinary tract is responsible for concentrating the urine, storing it and, eventually, eliminating it from the body. A urinary tract infection can affect any one of these structures.
Urinary tract infections are caused by infectious organisms that enter the body through the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body. After the organisms successfully enter into the body, they can travel from the urethra into any of the other structures that make up the urinary tract. Usually, the body prevents bacteria from entering. Some conditions such as diabetes, urinary retention, kidney stones or an enlarged prostate can make it easier for bacteria to invade the body.
Urinary tract infections are classified based on the area of the urinary tract that is infected. A urinary tract infection that occurs in the bladder is referred to as cystitis. When the urethra is infected, it is called urethritis. The most common type of urinary tract infection is one that affects the urethra and the bladder. The ureters rarely are the site of urinary tract infection, according to MedlinePlus. When a urinary tract infection affects one or both of the kidneys, it is called pyelonephritis. This is the most serious type of infection.
A common symptom of a urinary tract infection that occurs in the bladder or urethra is pain and cramping in the lower portion of the abdomen as well as the back. The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse notes that women often feel uncomfortable abdominal pressure in addition to abdominal pain. Other common symptoms include frequent urge to urinate and pain and burning during urination. Although those with a urinary tract infection feel a frequent urge to urinate, they only pass a small amount of urine. Urine may also be cloudy, strong-smelling and dark in color. If the kidneys are the site of the infection, additional symptoms, including fever, chills, nausea and vomiting may appear.
Because most urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria, they can usually be successfully treated with a series of antibiotics. MedlinePlus notes that symptoms usually clear up within a couple of days, but it is important to keep taking the medication until it's gone to prevent the infection from recurring. If abdominal and pelvic pain are severe, a pain medication may also be prescribed to relieve symptoms until the infection goes away. If the infection is severe, intravenous antibiotics may be required.
MayoClinic.com lists a number of strategies that may help reduce the chances of developing a urinary tract infection. Drinking large amounts of water can flush out the urinary system and prevent bacteria from multiplying. For women, wiping from the front to back after a bowel movement can reduce the risk of spreading bacteria from the anus to the vagina, thus reducing the risk of bacterial infection. Urinating directly before and after sexual intercourse can also help remove bacteria from the area and prevent pushing it into the urethra.