Urinary tract infection, children

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are fairly common, but not usually serious, and can be effectively treated with antibiotics.

The urinary tract is where our bodies make and get rid of urine. It comprises the kidneys, and stretches out to the ureters (the tubes connecting the kidneys to the bladder), down to the bladder, and finally the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body).

Infections of the kidneys (pyelonephritis) or ureters are known as upper UTIs. Infections of the bladder (cystitis) or infections of urethra (urethritis) are known as lower UTIs.

Upper UTIs are potentially more serious because there is a chance they could lead to long-term problems such as kidney scarring and high blood pressure (hypertension). However, the risk of these problems is low if the infection is treated promptly.

Signs and symptoms

It can be difficult to tell whether a child has a UTI, because the symptoms can be vague and young children cannot easily communicate how they feel.

Signs that your child may have an UTI can include:

  • high temperature (fever)
  • vomiting
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • pain or a burning sensation when urinating
  • needing to urinate frequently
  • wetting themselves or their bed, having previously been dry
  • pain in their tummy (abdomen), side or lower back
  • unpleasant smelling urine
  • blood in their urine

Read more about the symptoms of UTIs in children.

When to seek medical advice

If you think your child is unwell and could have a UTI, contact your GP as soon as possible.

This is not normally a serious type of infection, but it should be diagnosed and treated quickly to reduce the duration of infection and any risk of complications.

Your GP should be able to diagnose your child with a UTI by asking about their symptoms, examining them and arranging for a sample of their urine to be tested for signs of an infection.

Read more about diagnosing UTIs in children.

What causes UTIs in children?

Most UTIs in children are caused by bacteria from the digestive system entering the urethra.

There are many ways this can happen, but it often occurs when a child wipes their bottom, and soiled toilet paper comes into contact with their genitals. This is more of a problem for girls than boys, because girls' bottoms are much nearer the urethra.

There is often no obvious reason why some children develop UTIs and others do not, although it can sometimes occur due to a problem affecting the flow of urine through the urinary system. This can lead to a build-up of urine that bacteria can get into more easily.

For example, UTIs are more common in children with:

  • constipation, as this can place pressure on their bladder and prevent it from draining normally
  • problems with the valves in their ureters, as this can mean urine flows the wrong way up the urinary tract

Read more about the causes of UTIs in children.

Who is affected

UTIs are a relatively common infection during childhood.

They are more common in boys up to the age of six months old, but after this tend to be more common in girls. It is estimated that around 1 in 10 girls and 1 in 30 boys will have had a UTI by the time they turn 16.

How UTIs in children are treated

Most childhood UTIs will clear up within 24 to 48 hours of treatment with antibiotics and won't cause any long-term problems.

In many cases, treatment will involve your child taking antibiotic tablets at home. For lower UTIs, a three-day course of antibiotics is usually recommended. For upper UTIs, a 7 to 10-day course of antibiotics is usually recommended.

As a precaution, babies under three months old and children with more severe symptoms are usually admitted to hospital for a few days to receive antibiotics directly into a vein (intravenous antibiotics).

Read more about treating UTIs in children.

Can UTIs in children be prevented?

It isn't possible to prevent all childhood UTIs, but there are some things you can do to reduce your child's risk, such as:

  • encouraging girls to wipe their bottom from front to back and boys to clean around their foreskin regularly
  • making sure your child drinks enough and goes to the toilet regularly
  • buying loose-fitting cotton underwear for your child instead of underwear made from nylon or other synthetic materials
  • include enough fibre in your child's diet to help prevent constipation

If your child has a problem in their urinary tract that increases their risk of UTIs, such as faulty valves that allow urine to flow the wrong way, they may be prescribed low-dose antibiotics as a long-term measure to prevent further infections.

Read more about preventing UTIs in children.

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