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

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

Some people often use bladder infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs) interchangeably. Both bacterial infections can make you feel like you constantly need to pee, often accompanied by a burning sensation.

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

Here's what you should know about the differences and similarities between bladder infections and UTIs—including the symptoms, treatments, and how to prevent the infections.

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Differences Between Bladder Infections and UTIs

As the name suggests, a UTI affects your urinary tract. Usually, your urinary tract comprises two kidneys, two ureters, a bladder, and a urethra, according to the National Library of Medicine.

A UTI happens when bacteria get into the urethra, which is the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body, and begin multiplying. Most commonly, the bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) causes UTIs. E. coli typically reside in the intestines and anus, per the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

Once the bacteria enter your urethra, they can cause an infection anywhere in your urinary tract. Per the NIDDK, depending on where the bacteria infect and colonize, you'll develop one of the following infections:

  • Urethritis: This type of UTI occurs if the bacteria infect your urethra.
  • Pyelonephritis: This type of UTI happens if the bacteria make their way to your ureters or kidneys.
  • Cystitis: Also known as a bladder infection, this is the most common type of UTI, 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 in Oceanside, N.Y., told Health.

Anyone can get UTIs and bladder infections. But women are more likely to develop those infections than men, according to the NIDDK. About 40% to 60% of women will develop a UTI in their lifetimes, most commonly as a bladder infection. 

Per the NIDDK, women both have a shorter urethra than men, and the opening of the urethra in women is closer to the rectum, allowing bacteria to enter it more easily. Both reasons cause women to have a high risk of UTIs and bladder infections.

Symptoms of Bladder Infections and UTIs

Per the National Library of Medicine, common symptoms of UTIs, including bladder infections, include:

  • 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

And if you're dealing with a bladder infection, according to the CDC, you may experience the need to urinate despite having an empty bladder or bloody urine.

But symptoms of all types of UTIs are so similar that it's hard to know what one you have based on symptoms. So, you'll need to see a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Do Bladder Infections and UTIs Cause Complications?

If untreated, a UTI or bladder infection can turn into a kidney infection. According to the NIDDK, kidney infections may lead to serious health issues like sepsis, kidney failure, or in rare cases, renal scarring. 

According to the CDC, 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 those symptoms, seeking immediate medical attention is essential. Your healthcare provider may need to order diagnostic tests to determine the cause and the appropriate treatment. 

Diagnostic tests may include urine tests or imaging tests, according to the American Urological Association (AUA). Early treatment is crucial to prevent complications.

How To Treat Bladder Infections and UTIs

How your healthcare provider treats a UTI depends on where it's located, what caused it, how severe the infection is, and whether there are other complicating factors, like pregnancy.

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

If you have a complicated bladder infection, you may need to rely on specific antibiotics and take them for up to 14 days to clear the infection.

Either way, you should start to feel better within a couple of days of taking medicine, but be sure to finish the entire course of antibiotics. Otherwise, resistant bacteria could grow and create a new infection that's hard to cure.

Treating UTIs in your upper urinary tract, including kidney infections, tends to be more involved than others. You may need to take antibiotics by mouth and intravenously, meaning through a vein in your arm, at the hospital. 

"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 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and founder and chief executive officer of Glissant, told Health.

Healthcare providers may also give you additional fluids intravenously. Once the intravenous antibiotics help you feel better, you might be able to go home and finish treating the UTI with more antibiotics for 14 days, per the AUA.

Treatment for kidney infections can be a whole ordeal, so that's all the more reason to look out for signs of a bladder infection. Quickly addressing the infection with a healthcare provider before it becomes a more complicated UTI can save you time and stress.

How To Prevent Bladder Infections and UTIs

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

First and foremost, per the AUA, drink enough liquids daily—about six to eight glasses. Having enough to drink (water, especially) is also a good option for treating a UTI. 

Staying hydrated helps you pee more, and "every time you pee, you're clearing out the infection," explained Dr. Eilber.

Also, according to the NIDDK, watching your bathroom habits is a good idea. That means emptying your bladder each time you pee, wiping front to back, 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.

Per the CDC, taking showers instead of baths can help reduce your chance of getting a UTI. Also, avoiding unnecessary vaginal cleaning products (including douches, sprays, or powders) may help.

A Quick Review

If you get a UTI, including a bladder infection, you should 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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