Urinary tract infections are a big pain — especially for girls.
UTIs are the reason for about 10 million trips to the doctor each year, and one of the most common conditions in teens. According to the Office on Women's Health, more than half of the U.S. female population will have at least one urinary tract infection at some point in their life.
Talking with your teen about urinary tract infections may feel awkward, but it's important for them to know what UTIs are, how you get them and — most important — how to get rid of them and prevent them from coming back.
What is a UTI?
A UTI is an infection that occurs in any part of the urinary tract, which includes the kidneys, bladder, ureters and urethra, the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body. When germs travel up the urethra, bacteria multiply and cause infection.
There are three types of UTIs, based on where in the urinary system they occur:
1. Cystitis (bladder infection). This is the most common type of UTI and typically more of a nuisance than cause for serious concern. Some cases of cystitis may go away on their own, but frequent episodes require medical treatment. If untreated, cystitis may lead to a more serious infection that can potentially affect the kidney.
2. Urethritis (urethra infection). This infection cause redness and swelling in the urethra, which can cause pain during urination, the feeling or frequent need to urinate, and pain during sex.
3. Chronic pyelonephritis (kidney infection). This rare UTI typically begins in the urethra or bladder and travels to one or both kidneys. If not treated promptly and properly, a kidney infection may cause permanent kidney damage, or the bacteria can spread cause a life-threatening infection.
What causes a UTI in teenagers?
Anything that brings bacteria in contact with the urethra can cause an infection. So, it's pretty easy to get a UTI at any age. Common causes of UTIs in teens include:
- Sexual activity. During sex, bacteria in the vaginal area may be pushed into the urethra and eventually end up in the bladder. UTIs are not spread from one person like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) but having sex can cause or worsen a UTI.
- Birth control methods. Using diaphragms and certain spermicides may increase the risk of UTIs.
- Constipation. When stool fills the rectum and colon, it can prevent the bladder from emptying completely.
- Poor toilet hygiene. Wiping from back to front can spread bacteria to the urethral opening.
- Holding in pee. Urine held in the bladder for too long can cause bacteria to build up.
- Taking bubble baths. Bubble baths, perfumed soaps and other scented products can irritate the vaginal area.
- Wet or moist clothing. Extended periods in soggy bathing suits and workout clothes provide more opportunities for bacteria to grow.
Why do UTIs happen in girls more than boys?
More than half of women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime versus 12 percent of guys. You can thank anatomy for that fun fact.
- A woman's urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body) is significantly shorter than a man's making it easier for bacteria to find its way into the bladder. The female urethra measures 1.5 to 2 inches, while the male urethra averages 7 to 8 inches.
- A woman's urethral opening is also closer to the vagina and the anus, where the bacteria that causes UTIs is most likely to be.
UTIs in males are much less common, but more serious. They are most often caused by structural problems in the urinary tract, kidney stones or an enlarged prostate.
What are the signs and symptoms of a UTI?
Urinary tract infections don't always come with signs and symptoms. When they do, they may include:
- A strong, persistent urge to pee.
- Pain, burning or stinging sensation when peeing.
- Passing frequent, small amounts of pee.
- Strong-smelling pee that may look cloudy or red, bright pink or cola-colored (a sign of blood in the urine).
- Pelvic pain, especially in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone.
If your teen has any symptoms of a UTI, they should seek medical treatment right away.
Can your period cause a UTI?
While your period can't be directly blamed for a UTI, women may be more prone to an infection during menstruation. Here's why:
- Low hormone levels. Estrogen is an anti-inflammatory, and it's at its lowest level during your menstrual cycle. That could make you more susceptible to a UTI.
- Hygiene. Menstrual blood doesn't carry infection-causing bacteria, but pads and tampons can be a breeding ground for the stuff if not changed regularly.
- Stress. Pain and discomfort from your period can be stressful. And while stress may not be a direct cause of a UTI, it can take a toll on your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections.
- Sex. Some women have more sex during their period since they aren't as worried about getting pregnant.
How do you prevent UTIs?
There are ways to avoid UTIs. Here are a few tips to share with your teen:
- Wipe right. After urination or bowel movement, wipe from front to back with toilet paper to avoid spreading bacteria from the rectal area to the urethra.
- Go when you gotta go. Even when it's inconvenient, it's important to fully empty the bladder to avoid bacterial growth.
- Keep it fresh. During periods, change sanitary pads often to keep genital area clean and dry.
- Skip the suds and smelly stuff. Avoid scented personal care products that can irritate the urinary tract.
- Ditch the sweaty duds. Change out of wet swimsuits and workout clothes as soon as possible.
- Drink up. Water is great for overall health and key to a happy bladder. Get the facts about water intake from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Cozy up to cotton. Cotton underwear is breathable an prevents moisture and bacterial growth.
- Be smart about sex. If your teen is sexually active, some simple steps may help prevent UTIs:
- If using lubrication, opt for a water-soluble product, such as K-Y Jelly.
- Use condoms, but avoid ones that are spermicide-lubricated, which can increase the risk of getting a UTI.
- After sex, urinate to flush out bacteria.
How do you treat a UTI?
If your teen feels the burn of a UTI, it's important to seek medical care right away. If neglected, infection can spread to other parts of the urinary tract.
- A simple urine test performed by a medical provider will confirm if a UTI is present.
- Most UTIs are treated with oral antibiotics.
- Symptoms should clear up within about a week.
- During and after treatment, be sure your teen stays well hydrated.
- As with any infection treated with antibiotics, it is important to complete the entire course treatment to prevent the infection from returning or getting worse.
- It's best to avoid sex for a week or so to allow the infection to clear up completely.
Severe or recurring UTIs may require additional treatment and a prevention plan.
Indigo is here to help — in person and online
If your teen suspects a UTI, there's no need to wait for care. Indigo Urgent Care is open 8 am to 8 pm every day, including weekends and holidays. One of our friendly providers will evaluate your teen's symptoms and provide a prompt diagnosis and treatment plan including a prescription, if needed.
And if your teen has had UTIs in the past and knows the symptoms, Indigo Online Care e-Visit is a great option. Just answer a short online questionnaire and a provider will get back to you in less than an hour with a diagnosis, treatment plan and prescription, if needed.
You should head to an emergency room for treatment if your teen:
- Experiences nausea, fever, vomiting, chills, or pain in one side of their back under the ribs.
- Has diabetes, a weak immune system or kidney problems.
- Notices blood or pus in their urine.
- Is pregnant.