Sometimes you just know it’s time to seek treatment for a urinary tract infection (UTI). “Obvious signs of a UTI are pain and burning when you urinate, caused by persisting inflammatory processes in the lower urinary tract,” explains Steven Lamm, MD, a researcher, internist and a leading expert on sexual health. UTIs occur when bacteria finds its way to your bladder: According to the Urology Care Foundation, approximately 12 percent of men and 60 percent of women will suffer from a UTI at least once during their lifetime. “Women are at higher risk for UTIs than men because women have shorter urethras, which lessens the distance bacteria must travel to reach the bladder,” explains Lamm, adding that “while many UTI symptoms will be obvious, some symptoms may be more subtle.” Read on to find out what they are.
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It’s not always just the feeling of having to pee all the time. Sometimes, it’s “feeling like you can’t fully empty your bladder,” says Lamm. The reason is twofold. First, an irritated bladder can cause you to constantly feel like you have to urinate, even if you don’t. Second, you actually may be retaining urine; it’s another symptom of a UTI that’s caused by weakness in the bladder or swelling of the urethra, according to The Cleveland Clinic.
Either way, it’s definitely uncomfortable—and a sign you may need to seek treatment. “UTIs can result in serious health problems if not properly treated,” warns Lamm. “If you have the inkling you have a UTI, consult your physician right away.”
Another subtle sign of having a UTI isn’t about how often you have to pee; it’s about how your urine smells. “A strong or strange odor from your urine may also be a sign [of an infection],” says Lamm. “This odor is typically from the bacteria present in the urinary tract.”
So what kind of smell should you be on the lookout for? Urine that smells sweet, ammonia-like, or fishy can indicate an infection, but it’s important to note that these changes in odor can also be a sign of something more serious.
You may not associate a fever, chills, and aches with a urinary tract infection, but those are some of the lesser-known symptoms of a UTI. A fever can be caused by any type of infection, while inflammation in the bladder can lead to pain in the area, or in the mid-to-lower back, near where the kidneys are located. If the infection causes your abdominal muscles to contract, this can lead to stomach pain, the AARP website says.
These symptoms don’t automatically indicate a UTI, but it’s worth discussing with your doctor. An untreated UTI can spread to one or more kidneys, explains Lamm: “This can cause permanent damage to kidney function and may increase the risk of kidney failure.”
It’s good to know what your urine looks like on an everyday basis, so you’ll notice if there’s a change.
“When you’re healthy and hydrated, your urine should fall somewhere between colorless and the color of light straw and honey,” says the Cleveland Clinic. “When you don’t consume enough fluids, your urine becomes more concentrated and turns a darker yellow or amber color.” But if your urine is cloudy or milky, this could indicate an infection, according to Healthline. In addition, blood—caused by the bacteria in your urinary tract lining, leading to irritation and inflammation in the bladder—can result in urine that looks “red, pink, or brown like cola.”
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Perhaps the subtlest sign of a urinary tract infection is… no sign at all. This is known as asymptomatic bacteriuria, and as the Mount Sinai Health System explains, it’s only identified when bacteria is found in a urine test. These types of UTIs only need treatment in some cases, such as if the patient is pregnant, or about to undergo surgery in a related area. Otherwise, the infection may resolve on its own.
If you do need treatment for a UTI, your physician may prescribe antibiotics. “Antibiotics are usually the first treatment used to diminish a present UTI,” says Lamm. “It is important to discuss an overall approach to treat the present infection, along with a preventive strategy to reduce the likelihood of recurrent infection.”
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