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If you’ve had a urinary tract infection, then you know there’s no mistaking the pain and burning that comes along with it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these are the most common infections people can get.

“A UTI — the acronym for urinary tract infection — is one of those pesky urological problems that many people (especially women) will experience, and likely never forget, at least once in their lifetime,” says S. Adam Ramin, M.D., a urologist and the medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. “In fact, UTIs are responsible for millions of trips to the doctor’s office every year. Understanding why a UTI occurs can go a long way towards preventing the pain and discomfort that can accompany them.”

Which is kind of why you’re here, right? Below you’ll find the lowdown on UTI infections, including what causes them, the symptoms you can expect and how to prevent them from happening in the future.

What’s The Deal With UTIs?

For starters, it’s important to understand that urine, according to Ramin, is the body’s liquid waste “produced by the high-powered filtration system” in the kidneys. From the kidneys, urine then travels to the bladder where it hangs out until you find a toilet and let it out.

“In the simplest terms, a UTI can occur when bacteria enter the urethra and travel to the bladder or kidneys,” he explains, adding that all humans have a significant number of bacteria on the skin surrounding the rectum and genitals. “In women specifically, the urethra is shorter than the male urethra and is also closer to the rectum, thus increasing the chances of bacteria entering the urinary tract and causing an infection.”

The CDC notes that women are more likely to develop a bladder infection than men, especially if they are pregnant or have gone through menopause. Ramin says sex also automatically introduces even more bacteria to the area, and certain forms of birth control, like a diaphragm or spermicidal foam, can also increase the risk. If you have recurrent UTIs, you probably already know that past UTIs also have a way of increasing the potential for future infections.

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What Are UTI Symptoms?

There are a few warning symptoms that occur prior to a full-blown UTI that could indicate a looming infection. For example: a change in the way your pee smells.

“For most healthy people who properly hydrate, urine should be nearly odorless or in some cases should only have a slight scent of ammonia to it,” Ramin says. “Sometimes, one of the early signs of an impending UTI is a distinctly unusual smell or cloudy appearance of your urine.” A sudden foul smell means it’s time to head to the doctor. “If you catch it early, there’s a better chance of treating it before more unpleasant symptoms arise,” Ramin says.

Other common UTI symptoms can include abdominal pain, a burning feeling while urinating, or a frequent urge to pee even when hardly anything comes out. Ramin adds that you may also have less control over your bladder.

And take note: Urinary tract infections that have reached the kidneys can include all of those symptoms, but are also frequently accompanied by back pain and fever. While these kidney infections are less common, the CDC pointed out that they are more serious than a run of the mill UTI, noting that nausea or vomiting, chills and/or night sweats may also occur.

If you suspect you have a UTI, don’t delay seeing a doctor (not that you’d want to deal with any of these symptoms longer than you have to). “Especially for expectant mothers,” Ramin says, adding that a UTI can be dangerous for both mother and child.

How Is a UTI Diagnosed?

UTI tests are pretty straightforward: Ramin says to diagnose a UTI, the doctor will require a urine sample which will be examined for the presence of specific bacteria or white blood cells, which would indicate an infection.

What Is UTI Treatment Like?

From there, you’ll have to follow doctor’s orders for UTI treatment, which typically includes a round of antibiotics.

“If your infection is treated with antibiotics, it’s important to follow directions carefully and finish all the medicine, even after you start to feel better,” reports the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). “If you stop taking antibiotics too soon, you may get another infection that is harder to treat.”

Ramin says that, while you can usually wipe out a UTI with antibiotics and plenty of fluids, some can be tougher to treat. Infections that have reached the kidneys may require IV antibiotics as well as oral antibiotics.

Can I Prevent UTIs?

OK, so now that you’re feeling better, you never want to experience a UTI again, right? Ramin says the first step to prevention is hygiene through simple steps like urinating after sex, regularly washing the genital area with a mild soap and warm water and, for women, wiping front to back to keep bacteria out of the urethra.

If you use a diaphragm or spermicidal foam for birth control method and you have had recurrent UTIs, then Ramin says you might want to discuss other possible birth control options.

Sherry Ross, M.D., an OB-GYN and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period., also recommends drinking plenty of water in order to “keep urine and any unwanted bacteria moving out of your body quickly.”

Which leads both experts to another point: Stop holding your pee.

“Be sure to ‘go’ as soon as you feel the urge and make a conscious effort to empty the bladder every time you urinate,” Ramin says. “Both actions can increase the chances of expelling UTI-causing germs from your body, thereby further reducing your risk of developing an infection.”

Ross says cotton underwear also help to prevent sweat and, therefore, decrease “bacterial buildup in a vulnerable place.” She also recommends menopausal women consider vaginal estrogen as a means for “hydrating the vagina” and making the tissue less prone to a UTI.

And guess what? That age-old advice to drink cranberry juice to prevent UTIs isn’t so bad, either, Ross says. Even though the research isn’t definitive, it helps to keep things moving which is a win-win in the case of UTIs.