You’ll know something is wrong right away if you feel a sharp pain or burning sensation while urinating. But is that a sign of a urinary tract infection (UTI) or a bladder infection?
The two terms are often used interchangeably, because they are so intertwined. Basically, the difference boils down to this: Every bladder infection is a UTI, but not all UTIs are bladder infections. They share similar symptoms but may require separate treatment approaches, so knowing how to identify each issue is key.
What is a UTI?
A UTI is an infection in any part of the urine system. This encompasses the kidneys, bladder, ureters and the urethra. UTIs usually develop when bacteria enter the urinary tract or urethra and spread to the bladder. The urinary system is designed to block bacteria from entering, but sometimes these defenses fail. Certain risk factors like having a previous UTI, sexual activity, pregnancy and advanced age make some people more susceptible to getting a UTI.
If an infection is limited to the bladder, it can be painful and annoying, but treated relatively easily. If it’s left untreated, or the issue finds a way to spread to the kidneys, the situation can become severe. Individuals who develop UTIs are sometimes asymptomatic. When there are symptoms, you may notice:
- A burning feeling when urinating
- A strong urge to urinate that doesn't subside
- Cloudy looking urine
- Strong-smelling urine
- Urine that appears red or bright pink (potential signs of blood)
- Urinating often, and passing small amounts of urine
UTIs are more common in women than in men – as are bladder infections – so women may experience pelvic pain as a symptom, especially in the center of the pelvis and near the area of the pubic bone.
You should contact your primary care provider (PCP) if you experience any symptoms of a UTI, but especially the following, as these symptoms could mean your UTI has spread to your kidneys:
- Back, side or groin pain
- High fever
- Nausea or vomiting
- Shaking and chills
About 1in every 30 UTI cases leads to a kidney infection. You are most likely to suffer from a kidney infection if you have frequent bladder infections. According to the Urology Care Foundation, if the flow of urine is blocked or flows in the wrong direction, infections can happen. Urine flow blockage can be caused by kidney stones, tumors on the inside or outside of the urinary tract or structural problems with the urinary tract, such as an enlarged prostate.
What is a bladder infection?
A bladder infection is the most common type of UTI. It is usually caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli),which are bacteria that live on most people’s skin and intestines and do not cause a problem. But if they slip into the urethra, that can lead to an infection.
Sexual intercourse is another culprit, due to the difference between male and female anatomy. Because a woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s, it’s closer to the vagina and anus, where a lot of bacteria live. Sex, wiping from back to front after you go to the bathroom, putting in a tampon, and using a diaphragm for birth control present some avenues for bacteria to enter the bladder.
During pregnancy, the baby can press on a woman’s bladder and in the process, stopping it from emptying completely and allowing bacteria in.
How can I tell the difference between a UTI and a bladder infection?
UTI symptoms and bladder infection symptoms can overlap. If you feel an urgent need to urinate but next to nothing coming out when you go, that could be a sign of either issue. The same goes for a burning sensation while urinating and pain or pressure around the pelvic area and pubic bone.
Standard bladder infections are usually less painful than other UTIs. When the symptoms feel more severe than those listed above and align with the aforementioned indicators of a possible kidney problem – like blood in the urine, nausea or vomiting and a high fever – that likely means you have a UTI.
Non-bladder-infection UTIs most often include urethritis and pyelonephritis. The former is a type of UTI that occurs if the bacteria infect the urethra. Pyelonephritis happens if the bacteria make its way to your ureters or kidneys.
How are UTIs diagnosed?
When attempting to have a UTI diagnosed, reach out to your PCP first. You don’t need to see a urologist unless the problems are recurring. Your PCP can discuss symptoms with you to determine the severity of the infection before conducting a physical exam and ordering urine tests, which are the only way to definitively diagnoses UTIs.
How can I prevent a UTI?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these tips to help prevent UTIs:
- Staying well hydrated.
- Taking showers instead of baths.
- Urinating after sexual activity.
- Minimizing douching, sprays, or powders in the genital area.
- Teaching girls when potty training to wipe front to back.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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