What is a UTI?
A UTI (urinary tract infection) is usually synonymous with bladder infection, as this is the most common type of UTI. However, infections of the urinary tract can also appear in the urethra (urethritis) or kidneys (acute pyelonephritis) (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2021).
Nearly half of all people with vaginas will experience at least one UTI (Foxman, 2002)--and having one UTI makes it more likely that you will have another, with about 40% of UTI cases recurring within 12 months (Arnold, Hehn, & Klein, 2016).
How Do I know if it’s a UTI?
If you have a UTI, the first sign you’ll likely notice is a burning pain when you urinate (if you notice any symptoms at all–sometimes a bladder infection won’t show any!) You may also notice fatigue, an increase in how often you need to urinate, a small amount of urination each time, and/or pain or pressure in your abdomen or lower back.
However, a UTI is tricky because many other different vaginal conditions can have overlapping symptoms. It’s also possible to have more than one of these conditions concurrently! Other conditions that can cause similar vaginal discomfort include:
- Yeast infections (vulvovaginal candidosis)
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Sexually transmitted infections including chlamydia, gonohrrea, and trichomoniasis (“trick”)
- Interstitial Cystitis
Because of this, it’s very important that you seek medical advice to diagnose any pain, discomfort, odor, or discoloration in discharge you may be experiencing. Make sure to list any and all symptoms you’re having when you go to the doctor.
Leaving a UTI or any of the above conditions untreated can have serious effects including Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), where the infection that may start in your vagina spreads to your internal organs.
In addition to the normal symptoms of a vaginal or urethral infection, you want to watch out for a fever or chills; that’s a big sign that your infection may have spread, and it requires immediate medical attention (Das, Ronda, & Trent, 2016).
Preventing UTIs: FAQs
Let’s be clear: if you have a UTI, you need to go to the doctor and get an antibiotic. An over-the-counter remedy may help relieve the pain and discomfort associated with your UTI, but you need medication to treat a UTI once you get it. We have some tips about how to prevent future UTIs with vitamins & supplements, but these are not a replacement for medical treatment for your current UTI.
What’s the best way to prevent a UTI?
A UTI is caused by bacteria entering the vagina–and one of the most common ways this occurs is a lack of vaginal hygiene. Some vaginal hygiene tips from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2011) include:
- After going number two, make sure you wipe front to back to keep from dragging harmful bacteria towards the vagina.
- Use a mild, gentle cleanser on your vulva (the outside of your vagina–never the inside!) daily. Do not use a washcloth or sponge to wash your vulva.
- Do not douche; this can upset the pH balance of your vagina.
- Do not put anything inside your vagina that is not washed; this includes regular washing of any toys or fingers you might be inserting into your vagina and making sure any of your sexual partners are hygienic.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing, including loose underwear made of cotton or silk. You may want to go without underwear while at home or while sleeping.
Is there a relationship between UTIs and sex?
Yes. A UTI is not a sexually transmitted disease, but research shows that frequent intercourse–particularly with the use of the contraceptive spermicide–can cause more frequent UTIs. If you are currently using spermicide and subject to UTIs, you might consider switching your birth control method.
Otherwise, make sure everything is clean while you are having intercourse, and make sure you and your partner(s) get tested for STIs frequently (Arnold, Hehn, & Klein, 2016).
Does cranberry juice prevent UTIs?
Cranberry juice or pills are some of the most common treatments used to prevent recurrence of UTIs. Current research is inconclusive about whether this treatment actually works; however, unless you need to watch your blood sugar, it probably won’t hurt to try (Jepson RG, Williams G, Craig JC., 2012).
Can estrogen help UTIs?
Research shows that postmenopausal women are a little bit more likely to get recurring UTIs than premenopausal ones. Some research has suggested that hormone replacement therapy (estrogen treatments) might help combat this effect (Arnold, Hehn, & Klein, 2016).
If you have a burning sensation when you urinate, an increased need to urinate small amounts, pressure or pain in your lower back or abdomen, and/or fatigue, you should see your doctor as soon as you can to get tested, as you might have a UTI or another vaginal condition.
Because UTIs are so commonly repeated, you may also need to take some actions to prevent future UTIs, including proper vaginal hygiene, a change in contraceptives, cranberry supplements (though these are not a research-backed solution), and/or estrogen.
And remember: if your UTI symptoms come with a fever or chills, seek immediate medical attention; this may mean the infection has reached your organs, and it can cause serious damage.
- Mayo Clinic Staff (2021). Urinary tract infection (UTI). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/urinary-tract-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20353447
- Foxman B. (2002). Epidemiology of urinary tract infections: incidence, morbidity, and economic costs. The American journal of medicine, 113 Suppl 1A, 5S–13S. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0002-9343(02)01054-9
- Arnold, J. J., Hehn, L. E., & Klein, D. A. (2016). Common Questions About Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections in Women. American family physician, 93(7), 560–569. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27035041/
- Bandukwala, N.Q. (2019). Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs). WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/women/guide/your-guide-urinary-tract-infections
- Das, B. B., Ronda, J., & Trent, M. (2016). Pelvic inflammatory disease: improving awareness, prevention, and treatment. Infection and drug resistance, 9, 191–197. https://doi.org/10.2147/IDR.S91260
- Royal College of Obstetricians and Gyneacologists (2011). The Management of Vulval Skin Disorders. https://mrcog.womanhospital.cn/ueditor/php/upload/file/20190821/1566377001.pdf
- Jepson RG, Williams G, Craig JC. (2012). Cranberries for preventing urinary tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev., (10):CD001321. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23076891/