How Do You Know For Sure You Have a UTI?

We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. This week’s topic: How you know you have a urinary tract infection — and how to get rid of it.

Q: I had sex a couple days ago, and now my vagina and bladder feels really ... not good. I know it’s not a sexually transmitted infection, because my boyfriend and I just got tested last month and we are monogamous and use condoms. But everything feels painful and off. I read online that I could have a urinary tract infection … what is that, how did I get it, and how do I make it go away? Because IT HURTS!!

A: Urinary tract infections, known to most of us as the dreaded acronym UTI — and to history buffs as the honeymoon disease. UTIs are extremely common in women, with up to 50 percent of women experiencing a urinary tract infection in their lifetime — so listen up, and learn how to prevent them and get that vagina feeling better!

What are Urinary Tract Infections?

UTIs are infections that occur anywhere in your urinary system, which is composed of your urethra, bladder, ureters (don’t worry, I had to look that one up too — they are the tubes that carry urine from your kidney to your bladder), and all the way up to your kidneys. Most UTIs occur in the urethra and bladder, because they are closest to the great (scary, bacteria-ridden) outdoors. The bacteria that cause this mess is generally E. coli, which are supposed to stay in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract but sometimes decide they just wanna be free and explore places they aren’t invited.

So, how does the bacteria get all up in there? Great question … it’s not like the bacteria have legs, and your urinary system has some great bodyguards posted up, ready to vanquish all manner of bacteria trying to get all up inside you. Unfortunately, nobody’s perfect, and sometimes bacteria can slip past your natural defenses and throw a full-blown party in your urinary tract. Humans with female genitalia are much more likely to get UTIs because your urethra is close to your anus, making it easier for GI bacteria to travel the distance to get into your urinary system. The female urethra is also shorter than the male equivalent, making it easier for any bacteria, once in the urethra, to make its way to the bladder.

Bacteria from your anus can get into your urethra from something as simple as wiping back to front (which, realtalk, no one should be doing anyway), and also from sexual intercourse. Yes, this is why UTIs are also called the honeymoon disease, from back in the day when new wives would get devirginized on their wedding night, get a UTI, and spend their honeymoon thinking OMG I thought sex was supposed to be fun, I thought of England like my mother told me, no one told me it would burn to pee afterwards!! Which brings us to…

How Do I Know If I Have One?

Not all people experience UTI symptoms, but if you do feel a UTI, it will feel like you really need to pee a lot, but when you do it will burn like you’re pissing fire, but not in a badass Vulcan-God-of-fire-type way, just in a really uncomfortable way. Your urine may also look different — usually it’s described as “cloudy” or having orange-to-red coloring, which is due to the presence of blood — or smell stronger than usual. Finally, you may experience pelvic pain. If the bacteria make their way up to your kidneys, the symptoms get much more intense and can involve nausea, vomiting, fever, shaking, chills, and pain in your upper back and sides (near your kidneys).

How do i get Rid of it?

The methods for vanquishing a UTI are basically the same as those for preventing one: drink lots of water, pee frequently, hit the cranberry juice and D-mannose, and if that doesn’t work, go to your doctor to get a course of antibiotics.

A note from a non-doctor but a person who is very well-informed: It’s important not to suffer this one in silence. Go back and review the symptoms above, and you’ll see that the higher the infection travels, the more uncomfortable and dangerous it gets. An untreated kidney infection can land you in the ER with a high fever and severe pain, and no one wants that. So if you’re worried you might have a UTI, take a home test (they exist, you pee on them) or make an appointment with your doctor so you can get it all cleared up.

How to Prevent a UTI

If all of these symptoms sound like things you definitely want to avoid, you’d be correct. But how do you do that? Wiping front to back is easy, abstaining from sexual activity less so for many of us … luckily, there are so many other ways to prevent UTIs! Here are a few.

Drink Lots of Water

Water goes through your urinary tract (thanks Captain Obvious!) and helps to flush out bacteria that may have gotten in there. Water also dilutes your urine, making it less acidic, which can minimize the burning and pain that you can experience if you do in fact get an infection. So grab that water bottle and hydrate!

Urinate Frequently

Going hand in hand with drinking lots of water is peeing a lot. Holding it just gives any unwanted bacteria up there more time to hang out, check out the place, and decide they wanna stay for a while. Research shows that peeing regularly is helpful for flushing out any hangers on.

pee after sex

And now, a public health mantra. Ahem, repeat after me: I will pee after I have sex. I will pee after I have sex. I WILL PEE AFTER I HAVE SEX! Seriously, if you remember one thing about sexual health today, it’s to urinate after sex. Peeing directly after sexual activity flushes out anything that the thrusting motion often associated with said activity has pushed up into your urinary tract, keeping you healthy so you can hop right back in bed and do it again … and again and again.

Drink Some Cranberry Juice

One of the oldest home remedies for UTIs is cranberry. While the research has gone back and forth on the efficacy of this berry in combatting UTIs, a 2010 study found that cranberry juice helps stop bacteria hanging out in the urinary tract from developing into a full-blown UTI, in just eight hours after subjects drank it!

How does it work? Well, the surface of E. coli are covered with small, fingerlike protrusions, which can grab onto other bacteria. This allows the E. coli to multiply and an infection to grow. According to research, the metabolites present in cranberries stop E. coli from adhering to other bacteria, which in turn stops it from multiplying and turning into an infection. You can get the body-saving cranberry in pill form or you can drink cranberry juice (sugar-free only).

Take Some D-Mannose

D-mannose is an herbal supplement you can find at most health food and vitamin stores. It’s a sugar that naturally occurs in a bunch of fruits, including cranberries and apples. And it’s a really great vanquisher of UTIs. Here’s how it works: E. coli’s finger-y surface also allows it to grab onto the sides of your urinary tract. These little jerks can cling to you, so that your urine doesn’t wash them out, leading to … you guessed it … a UTI. D-mannose helps this process by binding to the E. coli so that it has its hands full as it were and can’t stick to your urinary system walls, allowing your urine to wash away all the bacteria and leaving you squeaky clean and UTI-free!

Get Some Prophylactic Antibiotics

Prophylactic means something you take before you’re sick, as a prevention method. Some people are more susceptible to infection than others, and can get recurring UTIs. If this is you, talk to your doctor and you can get prescribed prophylactic antibiotics to take at times when you’ve engaged in something that you know triggers your infections (so, basically, sex).

The Bottom Line

UTIs are for many individuals an unfortunate effect of having a vagina. For those of us who get them routinely, it’s important to become well-versed in reading the signs before your infection gets out of control and makes you feel really not great. Getting into the habits of hydration, urination, and herbal supplements can help. Catching them early and having a good relationship with a doctor who can call in a course of antibiotics is also key. Remember to listen to your body, and good luck!

Images: Fotolia; Giphy