Bladder Infection vs. UTI: What's the Difference?

What to know about each condition, and how they're related.

Bladder infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs) are often used interchangeably. They are bacterial infections that occur mainly among women—though they can affect men, too— and can make you feel like you constantly need to pee, often with a burning sensation.

But technically speaking, bladder infections and UTIs aren't exactly the same—while a bladder infection is a type of UTI, not every UTI is a bladder infection.

Here, urologists help explain the differences and similarities between bladder infections and UTIs, including the symptoms and treatments for each, who's most at risk, and how you can prevent a bladder infection or UTI.

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Differences Between Bladder Infection and UTI

As the name suggests, a urinary tract infection affects your urinary tract, which is made up of two kidneys, two ureters, a bladder, and a urethra, according to the US National Library of Medicine (MedlinePlus).

A UTI happens when bacteria get into the urethra (aka, the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body) and begin multiplying. Most commonly, it's a strain of bacteria called Escherichia coli (E. coli), which normally resides in the intestines and anus, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Once the bacteria makes its way into your urethra, it can cause an infection anywhere in your urinary tract.

  • if the bacteria infect your urethra, it's called urethritis.
  • if it makes its way to your ureters or kidneys, it's called pyelonephritis.
  • the most common type of UTI is a bladder infection (aka cystitis), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In fact, "a bladder infection is what most people think of when they hear about a UTI—that's the easiest way to interpret a bladder infection," Michael Herman, MD, urologist, and director of urologic oncology at Mount Sinai South Nassau, told Health.

Though both men and women can get UTIs and bladder infections, women are at a higher risk than men, according to the NIDDK. It's estimated that 40%–60% of women will develop a UTI in their lifetime, most commonly as a bladder infection.

The NIDDK says there are two reasons for this:

  • women both have a shorter urethra than men.
  • the opening of the urethra in women is closer to the rectum, allowing for bacteria to enter it more easily.

Symptoms

Whether you have a bladder infection or a UTI somewhere else in your system, you're likely to have some or all of the most common UTI symptoms. The US National Library of Medicine says they are:

  • Pain or burning when you urinate
  • Fever, tiredness, or shakiness
  • An urge to urinate often
  • Pressure in your lower abdomen
  • Urine that smells bad or looks cloudy or reddish
  • Pain in your back or side, below the ribs

If you're dealing with a bladder infection specifically, the CDC says you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain or burning when you urinate
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling the need to urinate despite having an empty bladder
  • Bloody urine
  • Pressure or cramping in the groin or lower abdomen

These lists of symptoms are so similar that it's hard to know which one you have based on symptoms alone. You need to see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Complications

Left untreated, a lower UTI or bladder infection can turn into a kidney infection, which the NIDDK says can lead to serious health issues like sepsis, kidney failure, or renal scarring in rare cases. According to the CDC, some common symptoms associated with kidney infections include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Lower back pain or pain in the side of your back
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you have any of the above symptoms, it's important to seek medical care right away. Your healthcare provider may need to order diagnostic tests to determine the cause and the appropriate treatment. These may include urine tests or imaging tests, according to the American Urological Association (AUA). Early treatment is crucial for your comfort, and to prevent complications.

Treatments

How a healthcare provider manages a patient's UTI depends on where it's located, what caused it, how severe the infection is, and whether there are other complicating factors (like pregnancy) to consider.

An uncomplicated bladder infection can sometimes clear up on its own. But given that it can turn into a more severe infection, your healthcare provider might give you a prescription for oral antibiotics to kill off the bacteria, according to the NIDDK.

If you have a more complicated bladder infection, you may need to rely on other specific types of antibiotics and take them for up to 14 days to clear out the infection. Either way, you should start to feel better within a couple of days of taking the meds, but be sure to finish the full course of antibiotics. Otherwise, resistant bacteria could grow and create a new infection that's harder to cure, says the NIDDK.

Treating UTIs in your upper urinary tract (including kidney infections) tends to be more involved. You may need to take antibiotics by mouth, as well as through an IV in your arm at the hospital, the NIDDK says. That's because "not all antibiotics you can take by mouth are strong enough to get into the kidney tissue—sometimes a kidney infection requires intravenous antibiotics to clear," Karyn Eilber, MD, a urologist who teaches at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, and founder and chief executive officer of Glissant, told Health.

Healthcare providers may also give you additional fluids through the IV. Once the IV antibiotics help you feel better, you can generally go home and finish treating the UTI with more antibiotics for a total of 14 days, per the AUA.

If treatment for a kidney infection sounds like an ordeal, that's because it often is. All the more reason to look out for signs of a bladder infection and address it with a healthcare provider before it turns into a more complicated UTI.

Prevention

UTIs are incredibly common, but there are steps you can take to help prevent both UTIs and bladder infections.

First and foremost, the AUA suggests drinking enough liquids daily—that means about six to eight glasses. Having enough to drink (of water, especially) is also a good option for when you're treating a UTI, too. It helps you pee more, and "every time you pee, you're clearing out the infection," said Dr. Eilber.

The NIDDK also says watching your bathroom habits is a good idea. That means making sure to empty your bladder completely each time you pee, wiping front to back (for women), and trying to urinate after sex to flush away any bacteria. Wearing loose-fitting clothing can also keep your urethra dry and free from bacteria.

The CDC adds that taking showers instead of baths can help reduce your chance of getting a UTI, as can avoiding the use of unnecessary vaginal cleaning products (think: douches, sprays, or powders).

And if you do happen to get a UTI, it's in your best interest to see a healthcare provider as soon as you feel any symptoms—that way, you can treat the condition early and minimize your risk of complications.

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