Urinary Tract Infections in Children: What to Expect

urinary tract infections

Urinary tract infections are not reserved just for adults. Painful urination is actually a common problem among children.

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately three percent of all children will have a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point, accounting for more than 1 million visits annually to health care providers. Girls have about an 8 percent chance of developing a UTI, compared to 2 percent of boys.

What Are Urinary Tract Infections?

The urinary tract is a system of organs — two kidneys, two ureters, the bladder and the urethra. The kidneys are responsible for producing urine by taking the waste from your blood. Think of the ureters as the pipes — the urine travels through these tiny tubes to the bladder. The bladder, which looks a balloon, holds the urine. When the bladder fills with about a cup of urine, it signals your brain that it is time to find a toilet. The urine then travels through a tube called the urethra and out of your body.

A urinary tract infection develops when bacteria invades the urinary tract, occurring most often when bacteria moves from feces to the urethra. When your child has a bowel movement, there is naturally occurring bacteria shed from the intestines that come out in your stool. Sometimes this bacteria migrates to the urethra and can cause an infection. This is more likely to happen in girls than boys because their urethra is smaller. Also, in general, this is more likely to happen in a diapered child because of the close proximity of stool to the urethra.

Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Decreased volume of urine
  • Getting up in the night to use the bathroom
  • Pain or pressure in the lower abdomen
  • Cloudy, bloody or foul-smelling urine
  • Fever or vomiting, especially in infants

Treating and Preventing Urinary Tract Infections

First, the doctor will need to look at your child’s urine. If he or she is old enough to urinate in a cup, a sample will be collected. If your child is too young and not toilet trained, it is often necessary to collect urine using something called a catheter — a small tube that is inserted into the urethra to collect a clean stream of urine from the bladder. Your provider will run a few tests to look for the presence of bacteria and determine if your child needs antibiotics. In rare cases, if your child’s infection has spread to the kidneys (also known as pyelonephritis), your healthcare provider may admit the child for a night in the hospital for IV antibiotics.

Here are a few things you can do to help prevent urinary tract infections:

  • Teach your child proper hygiene and ensure private areas are washed daily.
  • Remind girls to wipe from front to back to prevent the introduction of bacteria into the urethra.
  • Encourage your child to use the bathroom when they need to go and not hold it.
  • Keep your child hydrated to flush their system and prevent bacteria from entering the urinary tract.
  • Avoid bubble baths if possible.
  • Make sure your child wears cotton underwear since it is more breathable and will prevent excess moisture from being trapped near the urethra.

If you note any signs or symptoms you find consistent with a UTI, make sure you seek medical care as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the worse it can become.