Urinary tract infections (UTIs) affect about 3 million children each year, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Both boys and girls are susceptible to UTIs, but the percentage is higher for girls (8%) than for boys (2%). Roughly one million doctor visits each year are due to UTIs in children.
A UTI is, simply put, an infection anywhere in the urinary tract. A UTI is sometimes loosely referred to as a "bladder infection," though the infection may actually occur elsewhere in the urinary tract. The urinary tract is how the body removes waste and excess water. The entire system is comprised of two kidneys, the bladder, two ureters and the urethra. A urinary tract infection in and of itself is not always a serious issue for kids, however, if left untreated more serious problems can arise.
Causes of UTIs
A urinary tract infection is usually caused by bacteria that live in the bowel. The most frequent culprit is the E. coli bacteria. Although the mechanics of the urinary tract system have preventative measures in place to help prevent the entrance of infectious microbes, sometimes they still sneak in. If your child tends to delay going to the bathroom, or holds in urine, he is more likely to develop a UTI because regular urination helps cleanse away bacteria. Holding urine in allows bacteria to grow. The same holds true for delaying or holding in bowel movements, as this can put pressure on the bladder and block urine flow. Unfortunately, some kids are just prone to UTIs despite doing everything right.
Signs and Symptoms of UTIs
Symptoms can fluctuate in kids who may have a UTI. They can be mild or severe. Symptoms range from severe pain and a high fever to stinky urine or a burning sensation when urinating. It's also possible for a child with a UTI to have no symptoms at all. Pain in the middle or lower abdomen, irritability, a low-grade fever, nausea, very little urine output, and cloudy urine are some of the possible signs. Pain in the back or side below the ribs may be a sign of a kidney infection.
When to Call the Doctor
Only a doctor can tell you for sure if your child has a UTI. If your child is in pain or has a very high fever or a low fever that won't go away, whether with or without other symptoms, call the doctor. A urine sample will need to be collected to determine if a UTI is the problem. Depending on the age of your child, that may mean wearing a plastic collection bag (for toddlers and babies), catheterization, or simply urinating into a collection cup.
The main treatment for a UTI is a course of antibiotics. The length of the course will depend on the severity of the infection, but a course of antibiotics can continue up to several weeks. After your child recovers, he may need some follow up care like an ultrasound or x-ray, or a visit with a urologist who will examine how everything is functioning.
Preventing UTIs from recurring isn't always possible, but you can at least know which signs to look for. You can also help your child develop good potty habits so he learns the importance of good bowel and bladder movements. Although most UTIs occur in kids with normal functions, it's possible your child has an abnormality in the development of their kidneys or bladder. This can lead to more infections. A doctor can take a look and let you know if there's anything to worry about. Some abnormalities correct themselves as kids continue to grow.