UTI in Children: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Many people like to think that urinary tract infection (UTI) is a common problem faced by adults when, in fact, they occur quite commonly in young children too. If they complain to you about the usual tell-tale symptoms like a stinging sensation while urinating or having to use the bathroom more frequently, chances are your child has UTI. Those who have had experiences with UTI would know just how uncomfortable or painful it can be, but as long as your child is treated with the right medications right away, it should go away after a couple of days.

How do children get UTIs?

UTI happens when there is bacteria in the urethra which later spreads to the bladder, ureters, and kidneys. It is more common in girls because they have a shorter urethra and their urethra openings are closer to the anus, where bacteria tend to reside. However, uncircumcised boys are also more prone to UTI compared to circumcised boys. UTI can also be caused by a partial or complete blockage of the urinary tract which prevents your child from emptying his or her bladder. Another possible cause is Vesicoureteral Reflux (VUR), a condition where there is an abnormal backward flow of urine from the bladder into the kidneys.

What symptoms should I look for?

It is a lot easier for parents to detect UTI in older children because they are able to describe what they are experiencing compared to younger ones. Common symptoms of UTI include:

  • Pain, burning or a stinging sensation when peeing. 
  • Pain in the lower part of the abdomen (below the belly button).
  • Increased or frequent urges to pee but only peeing in small amounts each time
  • Bed wetting accidents
  • Foul-smelling or discoloured urine
  • Fever or vomiting

How is it diagnosed?

If your child is showing UTI symptoms, it is best to see a doctor early. The earlier your child receives treatment the more comfortable they would be. Although generally doctors can easily make a diagnosis based on your child’s systems, there are tests that can be done just to be sure:

Urinalysis: Older children would be asked to pee into a cup and if need be, a catheter would be inserted into the urethra of infants and younger children to collect a urine sample. The urine sample will then be checked for red blood cells, white blood cells, bacteria, excess protein, and signs of infection. 

Urine culture: In severe cases the doctor may send the urine samples to test for urine culture to determine the type of bacteria causing the infection. This can help your doctor determine the exact bacterial infection and choose the best medical treatment for your child. If your child suffers frequent bouts of UTI, the doctor may refer your child to a kidney specialist (Nephrologist) or a Paediatric Urologist for further evaluation.

Imaging tests like Ultrasound, Voiding Cystourethrogram (VCUG) and other low radiation exposure imaging test might also be used to detect any other abnormalities or damage in the kidneys or urinary tract.

Treatment options available? 

Depending on the type of bacteria causing the infection and its severity, your child’s doctor will determine the next course of action. Most of the time your child would be put on Antibiotics to eliminate bacteria and to prevent the infection from spreading further. You should start to see improvement in your child’s condition within 24 to 48 hours of treatment. Make sure that your child finishes his or her antibiotic prescription because there are specific doses needed to kill certain kinds of bacteria. Nobody wants to be visiting the doctor again in such a short time. They will also run the risk of UTI returning when it is not properly treated which could lead to something far worse, like kidney infection.

So everyone says to take cranberry juice?
There is no scientific proof or definitive answer to say that drinking cranberry juice can help prevent or cure UTI, but sure nothing wrong with drinking it either. The point here is to get your child to drink plenty of fluids daily to flush out the bacteria in their renal system. The reason why cranberry juice was thought to be helpful in preventing UTIs is because it contains proanthocyanidins that prevents bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. Experts are still conflicted about this because the real benefits of drinking cranberry juice for UTI seem minuscule. Until then, just good ol’ water works great and if parents still want to offer their children cranberry juice anyway, try to find those that are not laden with sugar.

Prevention is Key

Following these tips may help prevent UTI in children:

  • Make sure your child always have a bottle of water next to them and to drink enough water throughout the day.
  • Practice frequent diaper changes for infants and toddlers. 
  • Encourage your children to go to the bathroom when they need to go and not to hold their pees. The longer urine stays in the bladder, the more chance of it becoming a good place for bacteria to grow. 
  • Practice good hygiene habits: Teach daughters to wipe from front to back after urinating or defecating. It is best to wash with water if a bidet is available. 
  • Minimise the use of bubble baths and avoid heavily scented soaps as this can cause irritation.
  • Avoid nylon and other types of synthetic underwear since they tend to trap moisture and promote bacterial growth. Instead, wear loose-fitting cotton underwear. 

Take home    

In most cases UTI do not cause serious problems and goes away after a round of antibiotics. Still, it is important to apply preventive measures and to make sure your child receives treatment in a timely manner to reduce the risk of kidney damage. If your child keep having recurring UTIs, your doctor may test to see if it is an antibiotic-resistant infection. These infections are more complicated to treat and may require antibiotics to be given directly into the bloodstream through an IV drip. In serious cases, your doctor may refer you to the hospital for alternative treatments.

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