A urinary tract infection (UTI), also called cystitis, is an infection that occurs when bacteria enter the urinary tract and cause tissue damage in the urethra, bladder, and/or kidneys. UTIs are not necessarily sexually transmitted, but the chance of developing a UTI increases dramatically if you are sexually active because of the potential for transfer of bacteria during sex between the vagina, the rectum, and/or the urethra.
Urinary Tract Infections
What is a urinary tract infection?
Is it common?
UTIs are so common that most people with vulvas and some people with penises acquire at least one UTI in their lives. In fact, an estimated 50% to 80% of people with vulvas develop UTIs sometime during their lifetime and from 20% to 50% of people with vulvas will have recurrent UTIs. Both people with vulvas and people with penises can develop a UTI; however, if you have a vulva you are more prone to develop the infection because of your anatomy. The distance between the bladder and the urethral opening is relatively short in people with vulvas, and this opening is in close proximity to both the vagina and rectum. This makes it easy for bacteria to move from one place to another. In people with penises, the urethral tube is longer and its opening is further removed from the rectum, thus resulting in a lower frequency of UTIs.
What causes UTIs?
UTIs are cause by bacteria such as E. coli that travel into the urethra, bladder, and sometimes the kidneys. Other STIs such as trichomoniasis and chlamydia can cause UTIs. Experiencing stress, having a weak immune system, eating a poor diet and damaging the urethra in childbirth or surgery can predispose you to getting UTIs. And UTIs often occur after having sex with a new partner (called "honeymoon cystitis") or after having sex with your partner for the first time in a while.
What are the symptoms?
If you have any of these symptoms, see your medical provider. UTI symptoms include:
Pain and intense burning during urination
Feeling like you need to urinate every few minutes
Needing to urinate with very little fluid coming out
Presence of blood in your urine
Strong odor the first time you urinate in the morning
In advanced infections, there may be fever, vomiting and pain in the mid- to lower back as the infection reaches the kidneys. This is serious and needs immediate medical attention.
How is it diagnosed?
A medical provider will perform a urinalysis to diagnose a UTI.
How is it treated?
Once a medical provider has confirmed that you have a UTI, they will prescribe a medication to relieve the symptoms and will prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection itself. Although there are also some effective herbal cures, discuss these with your provider. Sometimes symptoms go away even though the infection may be spreading to the kidneys. Sharp pain in the lower back may be a sign of kidney infection.
Is there a way to prevent UTIs?
Prevention strategies are particularly important. Follow the suggestions below to minimize the risk of developing a UTI:
Provide sufficient air circulation and help discourage UTIs by wearing looser pants and cotton underwear, and sleeping without underwear. Wearing tight pants or nylons can make it easier for an infection to develop.
Get good nutrition: eat a variety of foods and keep caffeine and alcohol consumption low. In general, drinking lots of water helps. Drinking large quantities of unsweetened cranberry juice may make the bladder and urethra more acidic and therefore more hostile to infectious bacteria.
Urinate frequently, emptying your bladder each time.
If you menstruate, change your tampons and sanitary napkins frequently when you have your period.
Wash your hands before and after sex, and after any contact with the anus. Make sure that there is no contact with the vagina (with hands, condoms, or sex toys) directly after contact with the anus.
If you use a diaphragm for contraception, pressure of the rim against the urethra may cause UTIs; see your health care provider for help with this.
Bacteria from the genital and rectal area can be introduced into the urinary tract during sexual activity. Urinate before and after sex to help clear the urethra of bacteria and relieve pressure on the bladder.
Keep your genital area clean, and wash between any anal and vaginal contact. For people with vulvas, this includes wiping from front to back anytime you go to the bathroom.
Is a UTI dangerous?
Damage to the kidneys and the urinary tract, as well as serious, possibly life-threatening problems may occur if a UTI is left untreated, or if you experience chronic UTIs. So if pain and symptoms persist, make sure you see a medical provider.