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What Causes a Urinary Tract Infection?

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When an individual has a urinary tract infection, she has an infection that can affect the kidneys, bladder, urethra or ureters. Urinary tract infections are a common type of infection.

The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse noted that it is the second most common kind of infection, resulting in 8.1 million health care visits each year.

A urinary tract infection occurs when bacteria enters the urinary tract. The most common area of infection is the bladder, according to MedlinePlus.

When the infection occurs in the bladder, it is called cystitis. The infection in the bladder can spread to the kidneys. This type of infection is called pyelonephritis.

If the infection occurs in the urethra, it is called urethritis. Only in rare occasions does the infection occur in the ureters.

The majority of urinary tract infection cases are caused by the bacterium Escherichia coli, or E. coli, noted the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Other cases may be caused by Mycoplasma or Chlamydia, which can be passed through sexual contact.

Certain individuals are at higher risk of developing a urinary tract infection. Women have a much higher risk than men, more than 50 percent higher, according to the National Kidney and Urologic Disease Information Clearinghouse.

The reason is biological. Women have a shorter urethra than men do.

As a result, the bacterium has less distance to travel in a woman than man. In addition, the female urethra is closer to the anus.

Sexual intercourse can also push bacteria into the urethra in a woman, which may result in a urinary tract infection. Other female-specific risk factors for a urinary tract infection include pregnancy, menopause and using diaphragms as birth control.

Individuals who have a catheter placed in either their bladder or urethra have a higher risk of urinary tract infection. Having a catheter in place can disrupt the body’s ability to clear out bacteria, which may result in the infection.

Disorders that affect the urinary tract can increase the risk of developing an infection. For example, individuals who have urinary retention, in which they have difficulty emptying their bladders, have a higher risk of infection.

The risk increases when the individual has urinary tract blockages. Conditions that can cause these blockages include enlarged prostate, kidney stones and narrowed urethra.

The risk for a urinary infection is higher among individuals who are of advanced age or are immobile for extended periods of time. Other risk factors include a suppressed immune system, which can be caused by several disorders such as diabetes.


American Academy of Family Physicians. Urinary Tract Infections. Web. 21 May 2012

MayoClinic.com. Urinary Tract Infection. Web. 21 May 2012

National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Urinary Tract Infections in Adults. Web. 21 May 2012

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Urinary Tract Infection – Adults. Web. 21 May 2012

Reviewed May 21, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.