If Your Child Gets a UTI

Kids catch lots of bugs in their first few years of life. Colds and other respiratory infections are common. But kids can get urinary tract infections (UTIs), too. Up to 8% of girls and 2% of boys will get a UTI by age 5.

Sometimes the symptoms of this infection can be hard to spot in kids. It's important to get your child treated, because a UTI can turn into a more serious kidney infection. With the right treatment, your child should start to feel better in just a few days.

How Do Kids Get UTIs?

It happens when bacteria from their skin or poop get into the urinary tract and multiply. These nasty germs can cause infections anywhere in the urinary tract, which is made up of the:

  • Kidneys, which filter wastes and extra water out of the blood to make urine
  • Ureters, which send urine from the kidneys into the bladder
  • Bladder, which stores urine
  • Urethra, which empties urine from the bladder out of the body

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A bladder infection is called cystitis. A kidney infection is called pyelonephritis.

Girls are more likely to get UTIs than boys are because their urethra is shorter. Bacteria from the anus can more easily get into the vagina and urethra.

Some kids have a problem with their bladder or kidneys that makes them more likely to get UTIs. Narrowing in the urinary tract can block urine flow and allow germs to multiply. A condition called vesicoureteral reflux (VUR) can cause urine to back up from the bladder into the ureters and kidneys.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

In older kids, the symptoms are often clear. The main symptoms are pain in the lower belly, back, or side and an urgent need to pee or pee more often. Some kids who already have been toilet trained lose control over their bladder, and may wet the bed. You may even see drops of blood in the urine, and/or the urine is pink.

With younger children, you might need to do a little digging to find out what's wrong. Infants can have more general symptoms, like fussiness, little interest in food, or a fever.

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Other symptoms of a UTI include:

  • Burning or pain when your child pees
  • Foul-smelling or cloudy pee
  • An urgent need to go, and then only peeing a few drops
  • Fever
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea

How Is It Diagnosed?

If your child has symptoms of a UTI, see your pediatrician. The doctor will take a urine sample and test it for bacteria. They can collect urine in a number of ways:

  • Older children can pee into a cup (doctors call this a “clean catch”).
  • Younger children who aren't toilet trained will have a plastic bag placed over their genitals to collect the urine.
  • Children who wear diapers can have a tube (catheter) inserted into their urethra and bladder to collect the sample.
  • In infants, the doctor can place a needle straight into the bladder through the stomach to get the sample.

At the lab, a technician looks at the sample under a microscope to see whether germs are in the urine. It might also be cultured -- that means the lab tech places the urine in a dish to see what type of bacteria grow in it. This can help your doctor find the exact germs that caused your child’s UTI so they’ll know the right type of medicine to prescribe to kill them.

If your child has had a few UTIs, your doctor might refer you to a nephrologist (kidney specialist) and do one or more of these imaging tests to look for problems in the urinary tract:

  • Ultrasound uses sound waves to show any blockages or other problems in the kidneys
  • Voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG) places fluid into the bladder through a tube to show any problems in the urethra or bladder when your child pees
  • Nuclear scan uses liquids that contain a small amount of radioactive material to see how well the kidneys work
  • CT, or computed tomography, is a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures of the bladder and kidneys
  • MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make pictures of the bladder and kidneys

What Are the Treatments for UTIs?

Antibiotics, mainly. These medications kill bacteria. Kids usually take them for anywhere from 3 to 10 days (most commonly 7-10 days). Your doctor might do another urine test after your child finishes the medicine to see if the infection has cleared up.

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Make sure your child finishes all of their meds, even if they start to feel better. Stopping too soon can make germs resistant to antibiotics and cause another infection.

Most UTIs clear up in about a week. Some kids will have symptoms for a few weeks. Call your doctor if your child's symptoms don't start to improve after 3 days from when they started on antibiotics, or if they get worse.

How Can You Prevent UTIs in the Future?

Change your baby's diapers often to prevent bacteria from growing. As your child gets older, teach them good bathroom habits to prevent UTIs. Instruct girls to wipe from front to back. This helps to prevent bacteria in poop from getting into the vagina and urinary tract. Encourage your kids to go to the bathroom as soon as they feel the urge -- not to hold it in.

Girls should avoid bubble baths and should not use perfumed soaps. And, they should wear cotton underwear -- not nylon -- to improve airflow and prevent bacteria from growing.

Have your kids drink lots of water, which helps flush bacteria out of the urinary tract. Extra water also prevents constipation, which can create blockages in the urinary tract that allow bacteria to grow.

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