Medical Conditions



Urinary Tract Infections

What are urinary tract infections (UTI)?

Urinary tract infections describe a health problem that results from a bacterial infection along the urinary tract.

Who is affected by urinary tract infections?

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) affect about 3 percent of children in the United States every year and account for more than 1 million visits to pediatricians' offices every year. UTIs are uncommon in children younger than 3 to 5 years, but unlikely in boys at any age, unless an obstruction is present. They are much more common in girls as a result of a shorter urinary tract. Uncircumcised males are more likely to develop a UTI than circumcised males. Children with a complete or partial blockage in the urinary tract are more likely to develop a UTI.

What causes a urinary tract infection?

Normal urine is sterile and contains fluids, salts, and waste products. It is free of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. An infection occurs when microorganisms, usually bacteria from the digestive tract, cling to the opening of the urethra, the hollow tube that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body, and travel up to the bladder.

Most infections arise from Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, which normally live in the colon.

What are the different types of urinary tract infections?

A urinary tract infection may involve different sections of the urinary tract including the following:

  • Urethritis. An infection of the urethra, the hollow tube that drains urine from the bladder to the outside of the body.
  • Cystitis. A bacterial infection in the bladder that often has moved up from the urethra.
  • Pyelonephritis. An infection of the kidneys that is usually a result of an infection that has spread up the tract, or from an obstruction in the urinary tract. An obstruction in the urinary tract causes urine to back flow into the ureters and kidneys.

What are the symptoms of a UTI?

The following are the most common symptoms of UTI. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

In babies:

  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Abdominal fullness
  • Foul smelling urine
  • Poor growth
  • Weight loss or failure to gain weight
  • Irritability
  • Vomiting
  • Poor feeding
  • Diarrhea

Older children:

  • Urgency to urinate
  • Incontinence during day and/or night
  • Frequent urination
  • Painful or difficult urination
  • Discomfort above the pubic bone
  • Blood in the urine
  • Foul smelling urine
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pain in the back or side below the ribs
  • Fatigue
  • Small amount of urine while voiding despite feeling of urgency

The symptoms of UTI may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.

How are UTIs diagnosed?

Your child's doctor may diagnose a urinary tract infection based on physical examination and a description of symptoms. Other studies may include a urinalysis (a laboratory examination of urine for various cells and chemicals, such as red blood cells, white blood cells, infection, or excessive protein) and culture that will detect the presence of an infection.

A boy with a UTI or girls under age 5 or 6 may require further diagnostic testing with a renal ultrasound. This is a diagnostic imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Ultrasounds are used to view internal organs as they function, and to assess blood flow through various vessels. A voiding cystourethrography (VCUG) may also be needed in some children to evaluate the bladder and urethra and to detect reflux (in which urine backs up to the kidneys instead of flowing out through the urethra). In some cases, your doctor may recommend an intravenous pyelogram, a nuclear medicine scan, a computed tomography (CT) scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests may help to rule out a structural abnormality of the urinary system.

Treatment for UTI

Specific treatment for a urinary tract infection will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Expectations for the course of the condition
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • A heating pad or medications (to relieve pain)
  • Increased fluid intake (especially water)

Your child's doctor may ask you to bring your child back into the office a few days after treatment starts to reevaluate your child.

Preventing urinary tract infections

The following may help to prevent your child from developing urinary tract infections:

  • Have your child take a shower instead of a bath.
  • Instruct your child to urinate when he or she has the urge and not to resist.
  • Teach your child to wipe his or her bottom from front to back. If your son is uncircumcised, he should be taught how to retract the foreskin on his penis and clean himself. The foreskin should never be retracted forcibly. Do not allow the foreskin to stay retracted for long periods as this may shut off the blood supply causing pain and possible injury.

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Last reviewed: 1/30/2013