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If you have never known the excruciating pain of getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), then consider yourself lucky. Before I ever had my first UTI, one of my middle school teachers described it as trying really hard to pee out a huge grapefruit — but barely anything trickles out. So just imagine that for a second. Yeah, it’s just as painful as it sounds.
Urinary tract infections (also commonly referred to as bladder infections) are the cause of nearly 10 million visits to the doctor each year. One in five women will have to suffer through at least one in their lifetime.
Symptoms include a burning sensation when you pee, constant pressure in your lower belly, urine that looks and smells weird, and sometimes even fevers or shakiness.
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While they can usually be treated very easily with antibiotics, most women will get them repeatedly throughout their lifetimes. A 2013 study published in the World Journal of Urology even found that UTI cases tend to peak among young people between the ages of 15 to 25, due to sexual activity.
Keep in mind, however, a UTI is not an STD. While UTIs can often come as the result of having sex, it’s not something that can be sexually transmitted to your partner.
Note: some STDs like chlamydia can cause you to have a bladder infection, but again, it’s not something you can “give” someone.
So now that we’ve got some of the basics covered, here are some other important things about UTIs that you should know:
1. UTIs are caused by bacteria.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, about 80 to 90 percent of UTIs are caused by a single type of bacteria. Basically, germs get into the urinary tract and multiply. That’s when the redness, swelling, and pain kick in.
2. It really doesn’t matter which direction you wipe.
If you remember back to the days when you were potty-trained (honestly who remembers this?), you were probably told that you should always wipe from front to back. The thinking here is, if you wipe back to front, you’re more likely to move fecal bacteria towards the vagina and the urethra, which would then cause bladder infections.
But studies have found that’s actually kind of a myth. In fact, a 2009 study found that wiping back to front only increased the likelihood of infection by a small amount (barely any to actually be significant), and another 2008 study of college-aged women who’ve already had UTIs showed no increased risk at all. So as long as you keep it clean down there, it doesn’t really matter which way you wipe. You do you.
3. Women are more likely to suffer from UTIs than men.
Yes, this totally sucks. While anyone can get a UTI, they are more common in women than men. Why? Well, blame biology. “The basic difference is the length of our urethras,” Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Yale told AwesomenessTV.
Women have very short urethras, while men have longer ones. Because of this, Minkin says it’s harder for bacteria to swim up from the outside and into the bladder.
But that’s not all. “In women, the urethra sits right on top of the vagina, which has billions of bacteria in it even with the absolute best hygiene,” she said. So when women have sex, the entrance to the urethra is exposed to tons of bacteria, which can then easily swim up and into the bladder.
4. That’s why urinating after sex is so highly recommended.
If you know the connection between sex and UTIs, you’ve probably heard that urinating right after sex can help limit your chances of getting one. As Minkin says, it is ideal to pee after sex since it will help to wash the bacteria out. However, there is some controversy over how effective this really is.
Some doctors say peeing immediately after is unnecessary, and there’s really no time requirement. If you don’t feel the urge to pee, then forcing out a few drops isn’t going to flush out the system. But if you need to pee right after, then obviously go ahead and do so. It can only help.
5. Some women are more prone to getting UTIs around their periods due to bacteria.
If you’re someone who tends to get UTIs around your period, you’re not alone. “A lot of women have an excess of discharge prior to menstruation,” Sasha Aurand, sex educator and founder of Psych N Sex told AwesomenessTV. During less exciting times of the month, discharge tends to be much looser and can easily come right out when you wipe. However, during ovulation, your discharge becomes stickier, which can then cause it to stay in your underwear. “This hot, sticky environment can breed bacteria,” she says. Thus, it becomes much easier for you to get a UTI.
6. There are preventive measures you can take if you constantly get bladder infections.
No one thinks UTIs are fun. If you’re someone you constantly gets them, there are some things you can do. Some doctors might recommend taking a preventative antibiotic pill every time you have sex— which Minkin says works for many women.
Some women find that taking cranberry extract daily can be helpful. Cranberry extract can help to keep bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder. Notice that it’s cranberry extract, which usually comes in a vitamin pill form. (NOT cranberry juice, which tends to be loaded with sugar and other things that are not so good for you.)
Maintaining a healthy bacterial flora in the vagina can also help. “There is a product called repHresh (a vaginal gel) and repHresh (a wash), which can help maintain a healthy acid pH in the vagina,” Minkin says. “That helps keep the vagina populated by ‘good guy’ bacteria, as opposed to nastier ones that can predispose you to urinary tract infections.” Probiotics can help build up good bacteria too (and can help in fighting off yeast and bladder infections).
7. Be mindful that some antibiotics can mess with your libido.
One of the more annoying aspects of taking certain medications is that it may help one issue, but cause other issues you didn’t have before. This can be the case for antibiotics you may be prescribed.
In fact a 2015 study conducted by gastroenterologist, Dr. Robynne Chutkan found that antibiotics used to treat UTIs can have a way of messing with your sex drive.
Long story short, antibiotic use can cause an imbalanced microbiome. That, in turn, can cause a ton of problems like yeast infections, brain fog, fatigue, and allergies, among others. More importantly, antibiotics can kill a bunch of necessary vaginal bacteria called Lactobacillus, which is responsible for keeping everything healthy and functioning down there. Speak to your doctor about weighing these pros and cons if you want to try a medication to help prevent UTIs.
8. The main health concern with leaving a UTI untreated is getting a kidney infection.
As if dealing with the pain of having a UTI isn’t enough, leaving it untreated can lead to other more serious health problems. The major health concern with a bladder infection is that the infection can spread up into the kidneys. When you get a kidney infection, you can experience the more severe effects like nausea and vomiting, high fevers, blood in your urine, and lower back pain. So if you do experience any symptoms, be sure to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible.