Urinary tract infections are common. In fact, over 50 percent of women and about 12 percent of men will experience at least one UTI in their lifetime, the Urology Care Foundation reports. And about a third of women will seek treatment for one by the age of 24. (For the purpose of this article, the experts we spoke to and the statistics we cited referred to people with female sex organs as “women” and people with male sex organs as “men.”) A recurrent UTI, also called “recurrent cystitis,” is classified as two or more UTIs within six months, or three in a year. Read up on recurrent UTIs specifically here.
UTIs happen more frequently in women than in men because the female urethra is shorter and it’s easier for bacteria to travel from the outside into the bladder, Ricardo Soares, MD, urologist at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, told POPSUGAR. (The CDC notes that infections can affect several parts of the urinary tract, but they most commonly affect the bladder). Dr. Soares said that if bacteria is found in your urine but you aren’t experiencing symptoms, this is referred to as asymptomatic bacteriuria and isn’t the same as a UTI. “It only requires treatment in certain situations, such as in pregnant women and in patients who are going to have a urological procedure,” he said.
On the other hand, he stressed that if you’re having symptoms but urine tests show there’s no bacteria, this is also not an infection. “The symptoms might be caused by a different problem such as an overactive bladder, [which is] very common in post-menopausal women,” he said. Vannita Simma-Chiang, MD, assistant professor of urology at Mount Sinai, told POPSUGAR that other conditions that might have similar symptoms as UTIs are interstitial cystitis (or painful bladder syndrome), yeast infections, and vaginitis. In terms of yeast infections, though, you’d most likely experience vaginal discharge that isn’t typical with a UTI, she said (discharge is also common with vaginitis). Let’s get into what UTI symptoms actually are.
Symptoms of a UTI
According to the CDC, you’re more at risk of getting a UTI if, for instance, you are sexually active, you’ve had a UTI before, or are going through menopause (you lose the hormonal support of estrogen after menopause, Dr. Simma-Chiang noted). Here are the most common symptoms:
- Frequency or urgency to pee
- Pain or burning with urination
- Pain or discomfort in your lower abdomen
- Blood in your pee
Dr. Simma-Chiang wanted to note that some people have come to her with completely different symptoms such as a stomachache or simply feeling ill. Some can also experience fever, but Dr. Soares said this could be an indication that the infection has spread to your kidneys.
How to Prevent a UTI
You’ve probably heard companies (or your friends!) touting the positive effects of cranberry. Both Dr. Simma-Chiang and Dr. Soares said that cranberry pills aren’t guaranteed to help prevent UTIs because there’s no significant evidence. There are small studies that suggest the active ingredient, PACs, may prevent UTIs, though “we’re not quite sure whether or not that active ingredient is actually present in cranberry pills or if it gets digested,” Dr. Simma-Chiang said. She added that she’s perfectly fine with her patients taking these pills if they seem to be working. (Note: cranberry pills aren’t regulated by the FDA.) Read more about cranberry juice specifically here.
Dr. Soares said good genital hygiene can help prevent UTIs because “most infections travel from the anal area up into the urethra.” Drinking water is good as well since increased urination acts as a cleanser for the bladder, he said. In people who have recurrent UTIs, a regular low dose of antibiotics can prevent infection, he explained. For those with female sex organs who have recurrent UTIs most closely linked to sex, they can try to prevent those infections by using protection or taking one dose of antibiotics after sex. “In post-menopausal women, use of vaginal, not oral, estrogen provides good results,” Dr. Soares said (since, like mentioned before, these people have a decline of estrogen, which can negatively impact the immune system).
Dr. Simma-Chiang recommended peeing after sex and also stressed the importance of a strong immune system overall. “I always remind patients that there’s organisms everywhere,” she said. “We catch colds all the time, and I hope people can think of urinary tract infections as something similar.” So, she said, to make sure your immune system is as strong as it can be, get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise, and stay properly hydrated. She said that constipation, too, can affect the way your bladder empties. “Urine is left behind and you can get a UTI,” Dr. Simma-Chiang explained. Make sure you’re passing regular bowel movements and focusing on your gut health.
How to Treat a UTI
Ultimately, even if you do end up getting a UTI, know that it’s treatable. If you want to treat your UTI at home, Dr. Simma-Chiang suggests drinking a lot of water to flush out the infection. A doctor will typically treat a UTI with oral antibiotics (as little as one dose). But, if it’s what Dr. Soares described as a “complicated UTI” — meaning it’s harder to get rid of because it’s occurring in someone with male sex organs or in someone who has diabetes or some sort of functional abnormality of their urinary tract — it may require intravenous antibiotics in the hospital. These, he said, can be changed to oral antibiotics once the person has had no fever for over 48 hours and lab results show there’s an improvement; then they’ll be able to finish treatment at home. “UTI in a man is, by definition, considered complicated and therefore requires a seven-day course of antibiotics,” he explained. So, it’s less likely to occur in those with male sex organs, but more difficult to treat.