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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Amanda Olson,DPT, PRPC
Urinary Tract Infections (also known as bladder infections) are the first thing most people think of when they feel a burning sensation while urinating.
However, that burning sensation is actually a common symptom of other infections like yeast infections or sexually transmitted infections--and it’s also a primary symptom in a rare condition called Interstitial Cystitis.
If you’re feeling that burning sensation (especially if it’s chronic), how do you know the difference between these two conditions which can feel very similar?
A Urinary Tract Infection can be an infection of the urethra, bladder, or kidneys--but the most common of these is a bladder infection.
A bladder infection can sometimes appear without any symptoms. But when they do appear, the most common symptom associated with a bladder infection is a burning pain when urinating.
Other symptoms of a bladder infection include (Bandukwala, 2019):
It is vital that you seek UTI treatment immediately--and not just because it is a very painful and unpleasant experience. An untreated infection that spreads to your kidneys can be very dangerous and lead to permanent changes in your body! If you are starting to experience a fever or chills along with your UTI symptoms, please seek immediate medical attention (Bandukwala, 2019).
There are some over-the-counter “treatments” for a UTI, but these only treat the pain and discomfort; to kill the bacteria causing your UTI, you need to see a doctor that can prescribe you antibiotics.
So, a UTI is typically a bladder infection, and is often painful… but Interstitial Cystitis is also sometimes known as painful bladder syndrome. You can see how it’s easy to confuse these two conditions of the bladder, particularly when you look at the symptoms of IC (NIDDK, 2017):
That’s right--the symptoms of IC and UTI are nearly the same!
We also do not know what causes interstitial cystitis. IC is comorbid with a number of other health conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, physical or sexual abuse and trauma, vulvodynia (chronic pain of the vulva), and other autoimmune conditions.
Some early research suggests that there may be a link between several different conditions that cause inflammation and the development of IC (NIDDK, 2017).
There is no cure for interstitial cystitis, nor is there a one-size-fits-all treatment. Pain management, therapy, lifestyle changes, and other medications like antidepressants and immunosuppressants may help (Interstitial Cystitis Association, 2021).
Interstitial Cystitis is more rare than a UTI; it’s estimated that 3-6% of Americans with vaginas have IC (Interstitial Cystitis Association, 2020), whereas 20% of those with vaginas will experience at least one UTI in their lifetimes--and often more than one (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
From the patient’s point of view, there is little difference between IC and a UTI; both are painful conditions of the bladder. IC is a chronic condition, but this does not distinguish it from chronic UTIs, which are fairly common (Kodner & Gupton, 2010).
From the physician’s point of view, IC is only diagnosed when all other possible sources of these symptoms have been ruled out.
While a burning sensation during urination is commonly associated with a UTI, it’s very important that you see a doctor and get a test for your specific vaginal concerns, as many forms of vaginitis can also come with urinary burning.
Unlike a UTI, which is an infection of the urinary tract, vaginitis is a group of vaginal conditions including yeast infections and many sexually transmitted infections of the vagina. Many of these conditions (especially yeast infections) can also be chronic, requiring special treatment.
There is still much we don’t know about interstitial cystitis. It’s difficult to diagnose because of its overlap with UTI symptoms, and it’s difficult to treat due to its comorbidity with several other inflammatory or immunocompromising conditions, many of which we also don’t understand well.
Both IC and chronic UTIs can disrupt your life, health, and happiness; make sure you talk to your doctor about all of your treatment and testing options, and seek therapy if either condition is causing you undue distress. While there may be no one-size-fits-all treatment for IC, that does not mean that there is no treatment out there that will help you feel better and regain your life!