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Editor's note: We at POPSUGAR recognize that people of many genders and identities have vaginas, not just those who are women. For this particular story, we interviewed an expert and referenced statistics that sometimes referred to people with vaginas as women and people with penises as men.
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are one of the most common bacterial infections you can get. Between 50 and 60 percent of adult women and about 12 percent of men will have at least one UTI in their lifetime. Burning with urination, frequent urination, pain in your pelvic area, and blood in your urine are all signs that you might be facing a UTI.
UTIs are caused by unwanted bacteria making its way into the bladder, but how exactly does it get there in the first place? Well, many UTIs are caused by penetrative sex. But other factors, including your genetics and some behavioral patterns, may also play a role.
No matter how they occur, UTIs are a certified pain to deal with and can be stubborn to resolve as well. Though sometimes they can turn into more dangerous kidney infections, the biggest area of concern with UTIs is quality of life — getting rid of the pain and annoyance, says Craig Comiter, MD, a urologist specializing in pelvic pain at Stanford. To do that, it's helpful to have some background knowledge: what causes UTIs, how to treat them, how you can prevent a UTI in the first place, and what to do when your UTI becomes recurrent. Whether you're looking for relief now or reading up to prevent future infections, here's what you need to know about UTIs.
What Is a UTI?
A UTI is an infection, typically bacterial, that affects the tissue in your urinary tract, which includes your bladder, kidneys, ureters, and urethra. Bladder infections, kidney infections, and urethra infections are all different types of UTIs. There are also two classifications of UTIS: simple and complicated. According to the Urology Care Foundation, a simple UTI occurs in a healthy person with a normal urinary tract. A complicated UTI occurs in an atypical urinary tract, or when the UTI can't be treated by many antibiotics.
What Causes a UTI? UTI Symptoms and Signs
UTIs are typically caused by unwanted bacteria getting into and lingering in the bladder, though Dr. Comiter notes that UTIs can sometimes (but very rarely) be caused by a virus or fungus. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, we're talking about bacterial infection," he says.
Keep in mind that UTIs and vaginal yeast infections are two different conditions. A yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of fungal bacteria in the vagina, causing severe itchiness and sometimes discharge. UTIs, on the other hand, can be caused by anything that pushes bacteria into the bladder. This includes penetrative sex or a penetrative vibrator and not urinating frequently enough, which keeps bacteria in the bladder for longer and increases the risk of an infection taking hold. Any abnormality in your urinary tract can also increase the risk of a UTI. For people with a vulva and vagina, bacteria in the vagina can be pushed up into the urethra and from there into the bladder.
It's worth noting that while UTIs can be caused by penetrative sex pushing bacteria into the urethra, it's unlikely that your partner is "giving" you the infection; as in, the bacteria is not originating from them. "It's your bacteria getting pushed [into your urethra and bladder], not theirs," Dr. Comiter says. In other words, the bacteria that causes a UTI originates from your body — it could be present in your vagina, vulva, anus, or any of the areas around them — and any type of penetrative sex can physically push the bacteria deeper into your vagina and closer to your urethra, from which it can then travel to your bladder.
One reason UTIs are less common in people with penises is because the male urethra is longer. "The bacteria have a tougher time making it all the way up," Dr. Comiter says. The bacteria also has to be able to adhere to specific receptors on the the walls of your bladder and/or urethra in order to cause UTI symptoms. "There are genetic factors that make some women more predisposed to have some bacteria stick to those receptors," Dr. Comiter explains.
So What Does a UTI Feel Like? Symptoms Include:
- Frequent and urgent need to urinate
- Burning feeling with urination
- Small amount of urine when you do urinate
- Urine that appears cloudy and/or red, pink, or cola-colored
- Blood in urine
- Strong-smelling urine
- Pelvic pain
UTI Treatment Options
So how do you get rid of a UTI? Studies estimate that 25 to 42 percent of uncomplicated UTIs (that is, an infection that's only in your bladder and not your kidneys) get better on their own without antibiotics, but it's not recommended to let your UTI go untreated, due to the risk of it developing into a kidney infection. Antibiotics are the only thing that can actually address the infection, Dr. Comiter says. But you can also use a few expert-approved home remedies and over-the-counter drugs to make the UTI symptoms more bearable while you heal up.
UTI treatment options include:
- Prescription antibiotics. If you start noticing symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. They will use a urine test to confirm the infection, then prescribe you a course of antibiotics, typically three to five days in length, to treat the infection. Be sure to tell your doctor if you're on birth-control pills before starting a course of antibiotics. "Certain antibiotics can make the birth-control pill ineffective," Dr. Comiter says.
- Use over-the-counter drugs to treat the pain. You might still experience symptoms while you're taking antibiotics or even for several days afterward. Because of this, some doctors will also recommend taking over-the-counter medications such as AZO and phenazopyridine. While these medications don't address the infection itself, Dr. Comiter says they do work to stop the painful burning sensation when you urinate. It's not recommended to take these medications for more than two days because they can "hide" your symptoms, making it hard to tell if your antibiotics are actually working to address the infection. Dr. Comiter also recommends taking medications like Tylenol and ibuprofen to relieve UTI pain.
- Pee frequently and drink lots of water. Although urinating might be painful, make sure to pee whenever you have the urge. Drinking plenty of water and urinating will help flush the bacteria out of your bladder.
- Take cranberry supplements. Research is conflicting on how effective cranberry is at getting rid of and preventing UTIs; some studies say it works, some say it doesn't. Cranberry does contain compounds called proanthocyanidins (PACs), which are thought to help prevent UTI-causing bacteria from "sticking" to the bladder wall. But most cranberry products, such as juice and gummies, don't contain enough of these compounds to make a real impact in treating or preventing a UTI. In a previous interview with POPSUGAR, one doctor recommended looking for products with at least 36 milligrams of PACs. Dr. Comiter recommends cranberry tablets and extract instead of juice and notes that there's "zero risk" to taking them, even if scientists are split on the effectiveness.
When Does a UTI Turn Into a Kidney Infection?
A UTI in your bladder or urethra has the potential to become a kidney infection if left untreated, though Dr. Comiter notes that this is a very rare occurrence. For this to happen, the unwanted bacteria must migrate from the bladder or urethra into the kidneys. Though rare, kidney infections can be life-threatening and may result in permanent damage to the kidney, so it's important to seek treatment if you think you may have one. Symptoms of a kidney infection include:
- Fever and chills
- Pain in your back, groin, abdominal area, or side (flank)
- Frequent urination
- Persistent urge to urinate
- Burning sensation or pain when urinating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Urine that is cloudy, smells bad, and/or contains pus or blood
How Long Does a UTI Last?
While many patients start to see improvement after a few days on antibiotics, it's normal to experience symptoms even after the infection is cured, Dr. Comiter says. If your symptoms continue to persist seven to 10 days after you've finished your course of antibiotics, then it's time to make another appointment with your doctor. You might be facing a more resistant strain of bacteria that requires further treatment, Dr. Comiter explains.
UTI Prevention Tips
When it comes to preventing a UTI, there are a few behavioral changes that doctors recommend:
- Pee frequently. Holding your urine for a long period of time increases your risk of infection by allowing any unwanted bacteria to linger in your bladder. Urinating flushes the bacteria out.
- Urinate right after sex. Peeing after penetrative sex can help flush out any vaginal bacteria that got pushed up into the urethra.
- Avoid douching and medicated vaginal wipes. Douching and cleansing the vaginal area with harsh or scented soaps and wipes can alter the balance of normal (read: beneficial) vaginal bacteria, which clears the way for the bad bacteria to take hold and cause a UTI.
- Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom. Make sure to wipe from front to back, especially after pooping. Going in the opposite direction can bring bacteria from your anus closer to your vulva, increasing its chances of getting into your vagina and bladder.
- Try cranberry tablets. As explained earlier, cranberry tablets and extract (more so than juice or gummies) may help to prevent UTIs. Though the science remains mixed, there is no known downside to taking cranberry supplements, so there's not much risk in trying.
Can You Have Sex With a UTI?
Having penetrative sex when you have a UTI is typically not recommended, as some doctors say it can worsen your symptoms by irritating the tissues in your urinary tract. There's also a small chance you could pass the infection to your partner. Oral sex is also not typically recommended either, as it can spread bacteria from the penis or vagina to the mouth.
Of course, due to the general discomfort that comes with UTI symptoms, you might not be feeling up to sex at all. Even once you start feeling better, some doctors recommend abstaining from sex until you're finished with your course of antibiotics. If you don't want to abstain, talk to your doctor. Depending on your symptoms and the severity of your infection, they might give the OK for sex. According to Dr. Comiter, it's typically safe to have sex if you're dealing with a simple UTI.
How to Get Rid of a Recurrent UTI
If you experience frequent UTIs (more than three times per year), talk to your doctor about preventative treatment. For recurrent UTIs, preventative treatment could include:
- Urinary tract antiseptics: These types of prescription drugs, including methenamine, work by acidifying the urine, which can limit the growth of some bacteria.
- Medications that introduce "good" bacteria: Supplements like D-mannose, probiotics, and prebiotics can encourage the growth of "good" bacteria in your bladder in order to "crowd out the bad bacteria," Dr. Comiter says. While the research on these types of supplements is mixed, he says, there is "no data to say there's any risk" to taking them for a UTI. As these supplements are typically available without a prescription, make sure to check with your doctor before you start taking them.
- Preventative antibiotics: If your UTIs persist, your doctor might prescribe you a preventative antibiotic: a low-dose antibiotic that you can take daily or after sex, if that's what usually triggers your UTIs. At this low dosage these antibiotics "won't cure infection," Dr. Comiter explains, but they will help to sterilize your bladder.
The truth is, UTIs can be painful and frustrating, but they typically come with a straightforward treatment plan and road to recovery. Taking action is key. So if you spot the signs, make an appointment with your doctor so you can start feeling better ASAP.