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June 13, 2022 • read
Do I have a urinary tract infection (UTI)?
UTIs are the most common bacterial infection in women. Here in Canada, women make about 500,000 trips to the doctor’s office every year because of them. But women aren’t the only ones who experience UTIs.
Men, children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised also see their share of infections. Here’s how to spot the signs of a UTI, how to prevent them, and when it’s time to get help.
How do I know if I have a UTI?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection that develops when microbes — usually bacteria, but occasionally fungus or a virus — get into your urinary system. It can affect any or every part of the system, from your urethra and bladder to your ureters or kidneys.
UTIs can be quite uncomfortable. You’re likely to experience some or all of the following symptoms if you have one:
- Pain or burning sensation during urination (dysuria)
- Sudden urge to run to the bathroom to avoid having an accident
- Feeling like you have to pee constantly, but only passing small amounts of urine
- Dark, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine
- Discomfort in your pelvic region (for women)
- Rectal pain (for men)
What causes UTIs?
UTIs are caused when pathogenic microbes get into your urethra — the tube that expels urine from your body — and trigger an infection. Bacteria from the rectum — especially E. coli — is often the genesis of a urinary tract infection. While E. coli exists naturally in your gut, it doesn’t belong in your urinary tract system. However, activities like sexual activity or wiping your genital area back to front can spread the bacteria from the rectum into the area.
These aren’t the only things that contribute to UTIs. Other factors that may increase your risk of developing one include:
- Prostate issues
- Using spermicide as a birth control method (for women)
- Being pregnant
- Recent catheter use
- Bacterial vaginosis
What are the different types of UTIs?
UTIs may seem relatively straightforward, but this isn’t always the case. That’s why they’re broken down into two different types — complicated and uncomplicated.
Women have a shorter urethra than men, which means that bacteria have a shorter trip to cause an infection. Because of this, women are much more likely to experience a UTI than their male counterparts. Since urinary tract infections aren’t typically difficult to treat in this demographic and often don’t have another underlying issue, they’re known as uncomplicated UTIs, or sometimes as simple cystitis.
Regardless of who’s affected, uncomplicated UTIs don’t have symptoms that suggest the infection extends beyond the bladder. If fever, chills, fatigue, or other symptoms implicating systemic illness are present, it’s considered a complicated UTI.
Complicated UTIs are infections that happen to those with underlying conditions. Because of their longer urethra, men have a natural anatomical barrier that helps to prevent them from developing urinary tract infections. When they get one, there’s often an underlying physical or medical issue — like an enlarged prostate or an STI — causing it. This means that healthcare providers consider almost all-male UTIs to be complicated ones.
Your UTI is also considered complicated if you’re a woman that has a medical condition or risk factor that might make it more difficult to treat. This includes pregnant and post-menopausal women, elderly and diabetic individuals, the immunocompromised, and anyone with a urological abnormality.
When should you see a doctor?
The uncomfortable symptoms of UTIs demand quick treatment, and luckily, they’re usually quite treatable. Since you can’t get over-the-counter medicine for a UTI, a simple course of prescribed antibiotics can usually resolve your infection within a couple of days. Unfortunately, it can take that long — or longer — to get an appointment with your doctor, and heading to a walk-in clinic can leave you stuck in the waiting room for hours.
With Maple, you can skip the wait and see a doctor online for your UTI treatment instead. Urinary tract infections are ideal for online consultations as they can usually be diagnosed based on symptoms alone.
Once your online provider gives you a diagnosis of UTI, they’ll discuss treatment with you. This typically takes the form of a short course of prescription antibiotics like cefuroxime (Ceftin), nitrofurantoin (Macrobid), or SMZ-TMP-DS (Septra) which is a combination of two antibiotics — sulfamethoxazole and trimethoprim.
If you have a complicated UTI, your healthcare provider may prescribe a different antibiotic like ciprofloxacin (Cipro) for a longer treatment period. Whichever urinary tract infection antibiotics in Canada you’re given, your doctor can send your prescription to the pharmacy of your choice. From there, you’ll have the option of choosing free delivery or pick up.
Whether you have a complicated or uncomplicated UTI, symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable until you’ve finished your course of antibiotics. Here’s what you can do to improve your symptoms throughout the day and how to sleep with UTI discomfort:
- Drink plenty of water — this might seem counterproductive since you’ll have to go to the washroom even more, but doing so will help flush out bacteria.
- Make sure you fully empty your bladder every time you urinate
- Avoid caffeinated drinks as they can irritate your bladder
- Empty your bladder fully before going to bed
- Use a heating pad on your lower abdomen
- Take over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) as directed
When and why would I need an in-person urine sample?
Most urinary tract infections are diagnosable and treatable based on symptoms alone. In some instances, however, your healthcare provider might require you to get an in-person urine sample.
If you find that your UTIs reoccur chronically, especially if you’ve been treated for one in the past month, there could be an underlying factor. In these cases, an in-person urine sample can help shed light on the bacteria causing the infection. This allows your healthcare provider to adjust your prescription if need be to ensure you’re taking the appropriate antibiotic.
Additionally, if your doctor suspects a kidney infection or kidney stones, they’ll likely require an in-person urine sample. Depending on the results, your doctor may recommend certain antibiotics, or in some cases a course of IV antibiotics.
What happens if a UTI is left untreated?
While urinary tract infections sometimes go away on their own after a few days, this isn’t always the case. Especially in the case of a complicated UTI, it’s best to seek treatment right away, given their link with other medical conditions. Untreated urinary tract infections have the potential to cause a number of complications, including sepsis, a potentially fatal condition.
Medical treatment is also recommended for uncomplicated UTIs as without treatment, you run the risk of a worsening infection. This can mean that a lower urinary tract infection affecting your urethra (urethritis) or bladder (cystitis) can spread to your upper urinary tract, which includes your kidneys. It can also spread to the rest of the body, resulting in sepsis.
Urethritis can cause penile and vaginal discharge, pain while urinating, itchiness at the tip of the penis, and a burning sensation when you urinate. Cystitis can cause an urge to urinate, painful urination, lower abdominal pain, and cloudy urine.
An upper urinary tract infection in your kidneys is known as pyelonephritis and it’s a much more serious infection. Once a UTI has progressed to this point, you’re likely to experience symptoms such as chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, pain, and tenderness in your side and lower back. Pyelonephritis requires immediate medical attention as it can cause permanent damage to the kidneys.
As well, if you have a urinary tract infection and a history of kidney infection or disease, are experiencing bad back pain, or blood or pus in your urine, seek urgent medical care.
While you may have heard that cranberry juice can help to treat the symptoms of a UTI, unfortunately, there’s no evidence backing this claim. Timely and effective treatment with antibiotics is the best way to avoid any unnecessary and potentially serious complications.
Are UTIs contagious?
Urinary tract infections are the result of a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection, and they’re not transmissible. You can’t get a UTI by sharing clothing, kissing, or using the same toilet seat as someone who has one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t give your partner one though. Bacteria is the cause of most urinary tract infections, and it’s possible to transmit this bacteria to your partner through sex, for example. It’s possible to transfer UTI-causing intestinal bacteria to your partner’s penis through anal sex, or for UTI-causing bacteria on the skin to migrate into your partner’s vagina during vaginal sex.
Can STIs cause UTIs?
STIs or sexually transmitted infections are different from UTIs. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely unrelated.
UTI and STI symptoms can sometimes overlap. Furthermore, because sex can often be a precipitating event for both types of infection, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish between the two. If it’s unclear whether you’re dealing with a UTI or an STI, your healthcare provider will likely recommend urinalysis, an STI test, or both.
Since certain STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea are the result of bacteria, they can sometimes also result in a UTI. Thankfully, treating these STIs with the appropriate course of antibiotics will also address any symptoms as well.
As for having sex with a UTI? Sexual activity won’t make your UTI worse, so yes, you can have sex with a urinary tract infection. But, intercourse may feel uncomfortable until your UTI has cleared up.
How to deal with a UTI on your period
Having a UTI on your period can feel like a double whammy. And, it might not be a coincidence that you have an infection on or after your period either. This is because estrogen helps to protect against UTIs, but estrogen levels drop during your cycle.
While being on your period won’t make your urinary tract infection worse, it can feel extra bothersome down there. To help avoid getting a UTI on your period, be sure to change your feminine hygiene product often, as this assists in preventing infections — a good rule is if it feels full, it’s time to swap it out. It’s also a good idea to drink plenty of water to help flush out bacteria that cause an infection.
How to prevent a UTI in both men and women
It’s not always possible to prevent a urinary tract infection, but there are things you can do to lower your risk of getting one. For starters, drinking plenty of water and urinating regularly will help to keep your urinary tract free of bacteria.
For women, urinating immediately following sex, and, as your mother probably taught you, wiping front to back, is a must. Additionally, if your chosen method of birth control uses spermicide and you regularly experience urinary tract infections, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor about another method of birth control. As well, if you’re prone to UTIs, avoid douching, bubble baths, or using any kind of perfumed soaps or products on your genitals.
For both genders, cleaning your genitals regularly, especially before sex, can help to remove any UTI-causing bacteria. Using a condom with appropriate, non-spermicidal lubricants may also lower your risk.
If you’ve had a urinary tract infection before, you know that the symptoms can be hard to ignore — the sheer discomfort makes it almost impossible to do anything else. This may not be a bad thing though, as ignoring a UTI can have serious medical consequences. If you think you’re experiencing symptoms of a UTI, seeking treatment before it progresses into a more serious condition is the best course of action. Reach out to speak to a doctor today and start treating your UTI within minutes.