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Urinary tract infections (UTIs) in children

7-minute read

What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?

A urinary tract infection (UTI), is a bacterial infection in the urinary tract. The infection can develop in the bladder (cystitis) or kidneys (pyelonephritis).

UTIs are very common in children, and can develop at any age. Among infants under the age of 12 months, UTIs are more common in boys than girls and the risk of developing a UTI is higher in uncircumcised boys than in circumcised boys.

UTIs can sometimes be difficult to diagnose in young children. It is important to diagnose and treat a UTI quickly to prevent the infection from getting worse. If left untreated, a UTI can lead to complications such as kidney damage.

What causes UTIs in children?

When bacteria enters the urinary tract and multiplies, it can cause a UTI. The bacteria most frequently come from the gut, usually in the faeces (poo), and this can infect the urinary tract. In some children, constipation can increase the risk of developing an infection.

Sometimes, UTIs are caused by a condition called urinary reflux. This condition develops when there is a problem with the bladder valve and urine flows in the wrong direction, back up into the kidneys from the bladder. If you suspect your child has a UTI, it’s important that they see their doctor and have this investigated, to prevent complications such as kidney scarring.

From what age can a child get a UTI?

UTIs can develop in children of any age. However, they are more common in young children who are still in nappies.

What are the symptoms of UTIs in children?

Symptoms of a UTI in a child may include:

  • pain or burning when urinating
  • pain in the lower part of the stomach (under the belly button)
  • feeling a need to urinate often, or asking to use the toilet often
  • passing some urine before getting to the toilet quickly enough (wetting or incontinence)
  • smelly or discoloured urine
  • fever or vomiting

Some children with a UTI may not show any of these symptoms — they may just seem generally unwell.

How are UTIs diagnosed in children?

A urine sample is needed to check if your child has a UTI. Your child’s doctor or nurse will guide you on how to do this.

Once collected, your child’s urine sample is usually first tested by dipping a special paper strip into the urine to check for a colour change that can indicate an infection. The doctor may also send the urine sample to a laboratory to check which bacteria are causing the infection and which antibiotic will be most effective against your child’s UTI. These results may take up to 48 hours to return. Sometimes your child will need an ultrasound to check for any problems with the bladder or kidneys.

How are UTIs treated in children?

UTIs are treated with antibiotics and usually come in a syrup or liquid form that your child can drink. Children who have a serious UTI may need to be hospitalised to receive antibiotics that are given straight into the vein through a drip.

You can help your child recover from a UTI by doing the following:

  • Give your child the antibiotics as your doctor recommended — it is very important to finish the whole course of antibiotics, even if the child appears to be feeling better.
  • Keep your child at home from childcare so they can get extra rest at home.
  • Offer your child plenty of fluids to drink

Can cranberry juice help treat my child’s UTI?

There is no evidence to show that cranberry juice is helpful in treating UTI symptoms in children. Cranberry juice is not recommended as a treatment option in children known to have a UTI.

Can UTIs in children be prevented?

There are several things you can do to help prevent your child from developing a UTI:

  • Practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of bacteria from the gut to the urinary tract. When wiping a girl’s bottom after a poo, it is important to always wipe from front to back (vagina to bottom).
  • Being constipated can also increase the risk of developing a UTI, so if your child is constipated, see your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Make sure your child is hydrated by offering them plenty of fluids to drink.
  • Regularly change their nappy.

When should I take my child to see a doctor?

You should take your child to see a doctor if they develop any symptoms of a UTI such as pain or burning when urinating, needing to urinate more often, smelly or discoloured urine, pain in the lower stomach, fever or vomiting. You should also look out for their seeming generally unwell with a fever, even if they don’t have any other obvious symptoms.

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Last reviewed: August 2021

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