You know those few friends who seem to get UTI’s all the time? No biggie, they say. Just run to the doc, pop some antibiotics, and the annoyance is kicked (until the next time it happens). I was never one of those women, and I naïvely assumed I never would be. UTIs just weren’t something I got, I thought.

Until I did. In retrospect, the signs were clear: I had to pee every two seconds, and it was painful when I did. At first, I thought it was constipation. Then, I thought it was a bad reaction from the laxative that I took for the constipation that it wasn’t. Later, I thought it was the flu. For a fleeting moment, I even let pregnancy cross my mind. But a UTI? That simple, silly, easily treatable little thing? It wasn’t even on my radar.

So, like a very bad women’s health columnist would do, I ignored my symptoms (see my head drooping in shame). I had a big trip coming up, deadlines looming, and shopping and packing lists to check off before hitting the road. These things pass, right?

Well it passed, alright—straight up into my kidney, where it festered for over 10 days. I had a terrible fever, the chills, and constant discomfort and swelling in my back and belly. It wasn’t until I returned home and finally went to the doctor that I found out that a kidney infection was to blame. To save the organ at that point, I needed to be pumped with several bags of IV fluids, a nice fat shot of painkiller, and some serious antibiotics.

But worst of all, I learned this whole mess could have been avoided with a quick trip to the clinic, if I’d gone when I first saw signs of trouble. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you never let a UTI get the better of you.

1. What’s a UTI?

A UTI (urinary tract infection) is pretty much what it sounds like: an infection caused by bacteria in your urinary system—your bladder, kidney, and the tubes that connect them. The infection is very common—the second most common type of infection in the body, in fact—and is particularly prevalent in women, in part because of the way we’re wired down below.

2. What are the symptoms?

The first telltale sign is pain when you pee. It’s not always sharp or burning pain, but it’s an obvious discomfort. You may feel like you have to go all the time, even though not much comes out when you do. Your urine may also smell funky and could have spots of blood in it. Any or all of these signs point pretty clearly to UTI.

3. What’s a kidney infection?

As I found out the hard way, a kidney infection is what happens when you don’t take care of a UTI.  The bacteria spreads to your bladder and then continues on to one or both of your kidneys, organs that help filter your blood and produce urine. Symptoms can include a fever, abdominal or back pain, chills or night sweats, and just generally feeling awful. I mistook it for a bad cold or flu (but of course, I failed to take into consideration that I had no accompanying sore throat, stuffy nose, or cough). But unlike a cold, the symptoms won’t let up. Without treatment, an infection can cause permanent kidney damage or blood poisoning, and can even be life-threatening.

4. What causes a UTI and how can I prevent one?

Bacteria can get trapped for a lot of reasons, but the usual culprit among young women is sex. Simply by peeing before and after sex, you can significantly reduce your chances of getting a UTI—doing so helps flush bad bacteria away from your urinary tract. In general, just keeping clean—and not by doing anything excessive like douching (does anyone think that’s a good idea anymore?)—will help keep the unwanted bacteria at bay.

Also, if you enjoy tasty cranberry cocktails, indulge away! The juice has been shown to help prevent UTIs by making it more difficult for bacteria to stick to the walls of the urinary tract and multiply.

5. What do I do if I have one?

If you notice any signs of a UTI or kidney infection, visit your doctor ASAP. He or she will probably take a urine sample, and possibly a blood test, and give you a prescription for antibiotics. Although over-the-counter pain-relievers like AZO can make you more comfortable while you wait for the drugs to kick in, they will not treat the infection.

Usually, antibiotics plus plenty of liquids will get you better in no time. And as with most things, the earlier it’s caught, the easier it’s treated and the faster you’ll recover.

While it’s true that some women do get UTIs more often than others—and some even get them chronically—no one is immune. And unfortunately, infections don’t care whether or not there’s room for them on your calendar. As I learned, not everything gets better with time, tea, and wishful thinking. So keep a lookout for the symptoms, keep an open mind when self-diagnosing, and remember: if you don’t take care of it now, you’ll pay for it later.

Photo courtesy of Joy Coffman.