Between work, relationships, family responsibilities and trying to have a social life, many women lead busy lives that don’t leave much room for slowing down—least of all having to deal with urinary tract infections.
But UTIs can stop you in your tracks, not only because of more frequent urination but because they can hurt. They happen when bacteria enter the urinary system—bladder, urethra, kidneys or ureters, which carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder—and cause an infection.
UTIs are especially common in women because of the female anatomy; men are much less likely to get them. “Women typically get UTIs because their urethras are relatively small, and it’s close to the vagina and the rectum,” says Tanneisha S. Barlow, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Centre OB/GYN. “And those places, no matter how hard we try, are never sterile.”
The result: bacteria around the vagina and rectum can easily get into the urinary tract system and cause infection. “That’s why we try to teach young girls to wipe from the front to the back, because you’re going from the clean to the dirty area,” Dr. Barlow says.
One in five women will have at least one UTI in her lifetime. But despite their commonality, there’s a lot of misinformation about UTIs. Dr. Barlow breaks down some of the myths and helps set the record straight.
Fact: If it hurts to pee, you might have a UTI.
UTIs are commonly overlooked, but painful urination can be a key indicator that something more serious is happening “down there.” Other than a burning sensation when urinating, other UTI symptoms include:
- Frequent urge to urinate
- Passing frequent, small amounts of urine
- Pain above the pubic bone, where your bladder sits
- Blood in urine
“All of these symptoms should be in the absence of vaginal symptoms such as itching, irritation and vaginal discharge,” Dr. Barlow says. If you are experiencing vaginal symptoms, too, it’s possible that you might be experiencing a type of vaginitis, such as a yeast infection, rather than a UTI.
Fact: Sex can cause a UTI.
Because the urethra sits above the vagina, sex can cause bacteria to get into the urinary system and cause a UTI. “The vagina is close to the urethra, so some of that bacteria from intercourse can get into the urethra and cause a problem,”
Dr. Barlow says.
That’s why doctors tell women to urinate after sex to help flush out the bacteria.
Myth: Cranberry juice can cure UTIs.
Many women have been told to take cranberry pills or drink cranberry juice to cure UTIs, because cranberries have an active ingredient that can prevent the adherence of bacteria to the bladder wall, especially E. coli, which is a common cause of UTIs. Cranberries do have that property, but ingesting them is unlikely to make an infection go away. Ingesting them won’t hurt, though, and could ease symptoms.
So, how do you treat UTIs?
Dr. Barlow says the only way to properly treat a UTI is with antibiotics. “If you do feel symptomatic, get treatment so it doesn’t turn into something more worrisome like a kidney infection,” she says. An untreated kidney infection can lead to lasting damage, such as kidney scarring, sepsis and pregnancy complications, so talk with your doctor about the best next steps for you.
Myth: UTIs are annoying, but not a big deal.
It’s true that most UTIs can be treated effectively with antibiotics then everything goes back to normal. But an untreated UTI can become a kidney infection, and a chronic kidney infection can damage the kidneys. For pregnant women, a UTI might increase the risk of delivering prematurely or low birth weight.
“Pregnant women can get sick quickly because of the change of anatomy,” Dr. Barlow says. “But UTIs can cause problems when you’re not pregnant, too, so it’s always better to get treated than to wait.”
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