The ABC's of UTI's

So you're scurrying back and forth to the bathroom and it definitely burns when you pee. It's the worst. What is going on? A strong (and never-ending!) urge to urinate could indicate that you have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Whether you've had a UTI before, you're experiencing one for the first time (we are so sorry), or you're just curious in general, we're here to give you the basics on UTIs. Let's go!

What's a UTI?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of your urinary system — your kidneys, ureters, bladder, and/or your urethra. There are two kinds of UTIs: cystitis and urethritis. Cystitis is an infection of the bladder. Urethritis is an infection of the urethra. UTI’s can be quite painful — and, unfortunately, a fairly common fact of life.

While anyone can get a UTI, having a shorter urethra (which is part of the anatomy associated with having a vulva) means more susceptibility to UTIs. Some folks are simply more prone to UTIs because the cells in their vaginal areas and urethras are just more easily invaded by bacteria than others.

How do I know if I have a UTI?

In addition to that persistent need to pee, watch out for these other common symptoms of a UTI:

  • A burning sensation when urinating
  • Frequent urination resulting in small amounts of urine
  • Urine that appears cloudy
  • Urine that appears red, bright pink or cola-colored — a sign of blood in the urine
  • Strong-smelling urine
  • Kidney pain
  • Pelvic pain, especially in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone

A visit to a doctor for a quick urine test will tell you if you have a UTI. The treatment is a series of antibiotics and possibly something to help with the pain and burning. (Fun fact: phenazopyridine, the medicine often prescribed to help alleviate the burning, will turn your urine a bold orange color!) While UTIs on their own aren’t too serious, if left untreated, a UTI can spread and cause a kidney infection. So see your healthcare provider if you think you have a UTI!

What does sex have to do with UTIs?

Sexual intercourse is a common cause of UTIs. It's so common, in fact, it's often nicknamed the “honeymoon disease." Studies show that nearly 80 percent of premenopausal women with a UTI have had sex within the previous 24 hours. During sex, you’re introducing bacteria from the genital area and anus to the urethra. This isn’t restricted to solely penis-in-vagina sex — toys, fingers, and anything belonging to your sexual partner or foreign to your body can bring germs and bacteria into your urethra and urinary tract.

Your choice of birth control can also increase the chance for infection. Using a diaphragm can mean more frequent UTIs. Because of how a diaphragm sits it doesn't allow the bladder to totally empty — which gives urine and bacteria to collect. Using a spermicide can also increase the risk of UTIs; put simply, the “good” bacteria in a vagina is killed off with spermicide use.

Is sex the only way to get a UTI?

It sure isn't. Dehydration can also lead to a UTI (we'll wait while you go drink a big glass of water). Without fluids to keep your urinary tract flushed, bacteria have a chance to grow and flourish. Retaining urine––not emptying your bladder fully or often enough––can also cause a UTI. The longer urine stays in your bladder, the more time bacteria have to grow. Antihistamines can cause urine retention — so go ahead and blame allergy season for one more thing.

If you’re postmenopausal, your estrogen changes also impact your urinary tract, making you more vulnerable to UTIs.

Sugar intake can also cause a UTI— when you have a spike or increase in blood sugar, your kidneys process that sugar into the urine. Bacteria love using that sugary urine as a way to thrive in your urinary tract. If you’re diabetic, you’re at risk for recurrent UTIs.

UTIs are considered recurrent if they're showing up two or more times in six months, or three of more times in a year. People with spinal cord injuries, or nervous system conditions like multiple sclerosis, are also susceptible to recurrent UTIs.

How do I prevent UTIs?

Stay hydrated. (As a friend of mine always says, “hydrate or die-drate!”) Drinking enough water is one of the most important things you can do to protect against UTIs (and keep your body healthy). Water dilutes your urine. The more water you drink, the more you flush your urinary tract––meaning you’re flushing bacteria before it can turn into an infection.

While you’re hydrating, add some cranberry juice to the mix. Studies aren’t conclusive about the mighty cranberry, but most point towards cranberries being helpful in preventing UTIs. Cranberries add acidity to your urine, making it less friendly for bacteria. (If you’re sensitive to acidity in general, cranberries might be hard on you. No matter what, ask your doctor if you should add cranberries to your diet.)

Practice good hygiene. If you have a vulva, be sure to wipe from front to back. This helps prevent bacteria spreading into the urethra and keeps your vulva clean and dry. Wear underwear that’s cotton and save the fancy, tight-fitting lace and thongs for special occasions. Avoiding powders and deodorant sprays will also help keep your vagina clean, dry, and comfortable.

Pee before and right after sex. It might sound like a mood-killer, but it will help flush your system and keep UTIs at bay.

Do UTI’s Impact Fertility?

The short answer is no. However, having a UTI while you're pregnant isn’t great, since it can lead to pyelonephritis (kidney inflammation because of an infection), urosepsis (when the infection gets into your bloodstream), and increased risk of preterm birth. That said, UTIs are common during pregnancy and can be treated.

If you have a penis, UTIs can have effects on fertility. The urethra carries both urine and semen outside of the body; if this is something you’re concerned with, be sure to see a doctor.

Finally, keep on learning.

One way to stay healthy is to empower yourself with knowledge. Ask your doctor about questions you might have around UTIs. Keep an eye out for how your body reacts when you’re dehydrated––or what happens when you hold in urine. We’re always here to help offer resources around your health and your fertility.


Jordyn Rozensky

Jordyn Rozensky is a writer and photographer living in El Paso, Texas. Their work has been featured on a variety of publications including CNN and NPR. Follow their photography on Instagram @jordynrr.

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