Urinary tract infections (UTIs) account for over 8 million visits to health care providers annually, making them the second most most common type of internal infection, reports the National Kidney & Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC). Your urinary tract has mechanisms built in to keep germs out, but as the numbers show, infections can still occur. Marked by painful and frequent urination, UTIs can greatly affect your daily life. Luckily, UTIs are preventable, easily diagnosed and treatable.

As the body’s drainage system, your urinary tract comes in contact with a great number of microbes every day. While waste is typically flushed out quickly, germs may be left behind or enter your body to stay and multiply. Most UTIs are caused by the bacterium E. coli, which live in the bowel. UTIs can be found in any part of your urinary tract, which includes your kidneys, bladder and urethra. UTIs are easily cured, but infections left untreated may cause serious kidney damage. Women are more likely to develop UTIs than men, likely due to anatomical differences that leave women’s urinary tracts more exposed to infection.

The symptoms of a UTI vary according to where the infection’s location in the body. An infection in your kidneys can cause back and side pain, fever, shaking, chills, nausea and vomiting. Most infections occur in your bladder and urethra. An infection in your bladder (cystitis) can lead to lower abdomen pain, blood in your urine and frequent and painful urination. Infections in the urethra (urethritis) are characterized by burning or stinging with urination. UTIs can also cause urine to become malodorous and appear cloudy or milky.

Microbes can set up shop in your urinary tract through a number of ways. Delaying to urinate leaves more times for germs to multiply in you bladder. Any external object that enters your urinary tract, such as a penis, diaphragm or catheter, can introduce microbes. After a bowel movement, wiping from back to front may transport bacteria to your urethra. Kidney stones, diabetes or a lack of estrogen caused by menopause may also contribute to infection.

Diagnosis and treatment
UTIs are usually diagnosed with a simple urine sample, which a doctor will have tested for the presence of excess bacteria. People with recurrent UTIs may benefit from ultrasounds or x-rays which can help determine the underlying cause. UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics, and the duration of treatment depends on the severity of the infection.

Daily measures can help ward off UTIs. Drinking plenty of water keeps a lot of bacteria from building up in a small amount of urine. Wiping from front to back will prevent the germs in your bowels from moving to your urinary tract. Urinate after intercourse. Feminine products, such as douches, scented tampons and feminine hygiene sprays, can make your urethra susceptible to infection. Pregnant women should stay particularly vigilant against UTIs, as the infection is more likely to travel to their kidneys and could possibly cause complications with childbirth. As such, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that pregnant women are screened for UTIs about every three months.