Condition Center: UTI

Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso
Photo Illustration by Michelle Alfonso

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

Editors' note: We at POPSUGAR recognize that people of many genders and identities experience UTIs, not just those who are women. For this particular story, we interviewed an expert who generally referred to people who experience UTIs as women.

Chances are, at some point in your life, you're going to have this unpleasant but incredibly common experience: you go to the bathroom to pee, and within minutes, you feel like you have to go again — but nothing comes out. That's one of the classic signs of a urinary tract infection, a bacterial infection that affects more than half of people with vaginas at least once and many people repeatedly. Here's what you need to know when that I-have-to-go-but-I-don't-have-to-go sensation strikes.

Understanding UTIs

Your bladder is a warm, moist environment — the kind bacteria thrive in. So sometimes, bacteria that normally live on your body without much incident get into your urethra and migrate to your bladder, where they happily multiply. The overgrowth then causes a urinary tract infection, also known as a bladder infection.

UTIs are the most common outpatient infections, and people with vaginas get them up to 30 times more often than people with penises. "Women's urethras are just 1.5 inches long, whereas men's are eight, so bacteria don't have as far to travel to get to the bladder," says Suzette Sutherland, MD, director of female urology at the University of Washington Pelvic Health Center in Seattle.

Sexual activity can increase the odds of a UTI, due to the friction against the urethra allowing bacteria that have colonized that area to climb up to the bladder; that's why research shows that, while UTI risk tends to go up with age, the peak rate for uncomplicated UTIs (synonymous with bladder infections) — meaning, infections that don't spread beyond the bladder and respond well to medication — occurs in people between the ages of 18 to 39. (These are the years of maximum sexual activity, according to a 2019 paper published in Therapeutic Advances in Urology.)

While the relentless urge to pee is the most common symptom, UTIs also cause pain or burning when urinating, pressure in the lower abdomen, and smelly or cloudy urine. You might also have a fever, pain in the upper back or neck, or blood in the urine, but those symptoms typically mean the infection has gone beyond your bladder and reached your kidneys and possibly resulted in a kidney infection — a sign to get to the doctor ASAP.

Causes of UTIs

Urinary tract infections typically occur when bacteria enter the urethra and bladder, multiplying and causing a type of bladder infection commonly known as a UTI. There are certain activities and lifestyle choices that can increase your chances of developing a UTI.

  • Sex. Because bacteria are everywhere on your genitals, and your sexual partners', sex — especially penetrative intercourse — is one of the most common causes of UTIs, Dr. Sutherland says. "The best thing you can do to prevent the problem is pee after intercourse, which flushes out the urethra," she says. (Drinking a glass of water before can ensure you're able to go.)
  • Not consuming enough liquid. Aim for 64 ounces of fluid every day, Dr. Sutherland says. You should be peeing every few hours, and your urine should be light yellow when you go. "Emptying your bladder every three to four hours keeps your kidneys, bladder, and urethra flushed out," Dr. Sutherland notes.
  • Using a diaphragm for birth control increases the risk as well, so if you're prone to UTIs and you use this method of birth control, you may want to talk to your doctor about exploring different options.
  • Wiping from back to front after using the bathroom can also trigger a UTI, so be sure to go front to back to keep bacteria away from the urethra.

The Most Effective UTI Treatments

If you notice the telltale signs and act quickly, you might be able to get rid of the infection without antibiotics, Dr. Sutherland says. Not to mention, after a first UTI, about 27 percent of people with vaginas have a second one — so it makes sense to be proactive about protecting yourself. "The key is to catch it very early and flush it out by drinking plenty of water and cranberry juice," Dr. Sutherland says. She also suggests taking cranberry supplements with 36 milligrams of proanthocyanidin (a chemical found in cranberries, which is thought to prevent E. coli — the bacteria responsible for most UTIs — from colonizing your bladder) regularly if you're prone to UTIs. While the science is mixed on the effectiveness of cranberry juice and supplements, neither are harmful to the body. So if you find that either works for you, that's great. But drinking water will likely be the more effective solution: a 2018 study of 140 people with recurrent UTIs showed that drinking an extra 1.5 liters of water every day resulted in fewer infections.

If the infection doesn't go away within two or three days of home treatment, see your doctor, who will test your urine for bacteria (make sure this step happens, because you don't want to take antibiotics unnecessarily) and, if necessary, prescribe an antibiotic. In people under 40, the symptoms typically subside within a day or two, but take all the antibiotics in the prescription to be sure it's really gone.

Every once in a while, an infection is caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which requires more powerful antibiotics. "But most infections in younger women are easy to treat," Dr. Sutherland says.

Still, chronic UTIs can occur. In this case, UTIs may occur twice in a six-month period and/or three or more times in a 12-month period, symptoms remain even 24 to 48 hours after treatment, and the infection may last longer than two weeks, per Baylor Medicine. Chronic UTIs are often treated with "long-term, low-dose preventative antibiotics."