As adults, many of us are familiar with the burning pain and frequent (but often futile) urge to urinate that comes with a urinary tract infection (UTI). While miserable, UTIs are usually short-lived and are easily treated with a round of antibiotics and plenty of liquids.

But what happens if it’s your child that comes down with a UTI? So you can be prepared for days of the potty dance, here’s everything you need to know about UTIs in children.

What is a UTI?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the system responsible for creating and taking urine out of the body. Urine is normally composed of salt, water, and waste products. UTIs occur when bacteria enters the urethra and travels through the urinary tract, where it grows and multiplies. This bacteria is most commonly Escherichia Coli (E.Coli), which is found in the digestive tract.

There are two main types of UTI: A bladder infection, which affects the bladder and/or urethra, or a kidney infection, which occurs when bacteria travels all the way through the ureters and into the kidneys. Any infection in the kidneys, ureters, bladder, or urethra is considered a UTI.

Can children get a UTI?

Yes. UTIs are common in children, affecting eight percent of girls and two percent of boys under age 7. They most commonly affect girls and are more likely in boys that are not circumcised.

There are many ways for children to get infected with a UTI. Poor bathroom hygiene, holding urine for too long, constipation or excess diarrhea, and dehydration are common causes. Some children are also predisposed to UTIs, such as those with vesicoureteral reflux (VUR), physical problems of the urinary tract, or frequent catheter use.

Children are at greater risk of permanent kidney damage due to a UTI, making it extremely important to treat them quickly. Unfortunately, it’s often harder to spot a UTI in children than in adults because symptoms can be vague – if there at all – depending on age.

Symptoms of a UTI in Children

A newborn isn’t old enough to tell you where it hurts, and they often have vague symptoms that do not scream “I have a UTI” for them. They may have a fever, be fussy or inconsolable, or refuse to eat. You may notice that their urine smells bad. If your newborn seems out of sorts and has a fever with no obvious cause (such as an earache or a cough), see a doctor as soon as possible.

Older children with a UTI often have many of the same symptoms as adults, including:

  • Fever
  • Frequent urge to urinate.
  • Pain or burning during urination.
  • Urine that is cloudy or foul-smelling
  • Bedwetting in children that are otherwise potty-trained.
  • Vomiting or belly pain

If bacteria reaches and infects the kidneys, a condition known as pyelonephritis, your child may appear much more ill. Common symptoms of a kidney infection include back or abdominal pain, a high fever, vomiting, and fatigue.

What can you do?

Many children with recurring UTIs have physical abnormalities that need proper treatment. If your child is at high-risk for a UTI, these tips can help reduce their likelihood:

  • Encourage your child to drink plenty of water.
  • Teach young girls to wipe front to back.
  • Avoid perfumed soaps, bubble baths, or other irritating substances
  • Change out of wet clothes promptly after swimming.