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Those three special words: “Urinary tract infection”

The rundown on UTIs and sex

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Anna Schnell The Daily

Last November, I peed my pants in my boyfriend’s kitchen. My bladder had been feeling weird for a couple of days — I would get an extreme urge to pee out of the blue, and then when I went, the amount was negligible. I started just ignoring when I needed to pee because most of the time I didn’t really need to. And then, on the second day of my symptoms, standing in my boyfriend’s kitchen and scrolling on my phone in order to ignore the pressure in my bladder, I was suddenly letting out a tiny amount of pee.

After hastily changing my pants, I finally texted my mom about my symptoms. She told me it was probably a UTI. She was right.

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection of any part of the urinary system, though most commonly the bladder or urethra. According to Angela Ramirez Wood, a registered nurse of 15 years who currently works at Hall Health Women’s Clinic, the main symptoms are urgency (a strong urge to urinate), frequency of urination, a sense of incomplete emptying (“where you go to the bathroom, you pee, but after you’re done peeing, you feel like there’s more left and it won’t come out”), and sometimes burning with urination.

“Some people also may experience a little bit of blood in their urine or cloudy urine or urine that might smell a little different,” Ramirez Wood said. Some people also experience pelvic pain. 

Though I was aware that UTIs existed and were something I was more likely to get if I was sexually active, I’ll admit that most of my knowledge of them came from the song “I Gave You a UTI” from the show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” It seemed like a really distant possibility.

I’m not the only one who thought along these lines.

“I always thought of it as something like, you know, ‘Don’t leave your tampon in for seven hours or else you’ll get toxic shock syndrome,’ and like, I don’t know anyone who’s ever gotten [that],” a UW biology major said when relating her first experience with a UTI. “And I always thought of it as kind of like that … no, it’s very easy to have it happen.” 

I also thought that the main symptom was a burning sensation when you pee, and because I wasn’t experiencing that, I had no idea my symptoms meant I had a UTI. I was not alone in this cluelessness. “I didn’t know that I had it for a long time, like two weeks,” a recent UW graduate told me about when she got her first UTI last summer. “I didn’t know the signs and because I’d never had one, I’d never had to know what the signals were.”

Because of this, she experienced much worse consequences than your run-of-the-mill UTI. “It was very disruptive, and I went on antibiotics for it. The first round didn’t kick it, so I was on them for another round,” she said. “[The UTI] finally went away, but the antibiotics left me with — I’ve had digestive issues in the past, and basically, all of those ended up coming back. So I ended up having to go to the doctor for months and months and be on these crazy, very restrictive diets … it was the starting point of a very slippery slope.” 

The majority of UTIs are caused by sex, and are more likely to occur if you are having a lot of sex, have multiple partners, or are having sex with a new partner. According to Ramirez Wood, they are more common in people with vaginas simply because their urethras, the tube that connects the bladder to the outside world, are much shorter, so the bacteria don’t have to travel as far to get up to the bladder. 

“What happens is, usually during sex, with hands or touch or whatever it is, it’s very easy to bring bacteria near the urethra, especially because it’s so close to the vaginal opening, and then usually … what happens is, about 18 to 24 hours later, that’s been enough time for that bacteria to travel up the urethra into the bladder and cause all these troublesome symptoms,” Ramirez Wood said.

The good news is, there’s a simple solution: a round of antibiotics. The bad news is, there’s only one solution: a round of antibiotics, which need to be prescribed by your healthcare provider.

“That’s where it gets cumbersome for a lot of people, is that it means frequent trips to come in and see a doctor and get a prescription,” Ramirez Wood said. This can potentially be cost-prohibitive for those without insurance, something which Ramirez Wood said Hall Health is very aware of and tries to contend with.

However, while taking antibiotics is the only way to cure a UTI, Ramirez Wood mentioned that if you’re in the early stages, you might be able to get rid of it yourself. “If you start feeling the very first sensations of a UTI … start drinking a ton of water,” she said. “And sometimes, you can actually clear it by just drinking a lot of water and peeing a bunch.”

But trying to resolve your UTI on your own is no excuse for not seeking medical help if it doesn't work. “If that’s not working for you, and you’re going on a day or two, then definitely come in and we’ll take care of you,” Ramirez Wood said.

Though the symptoms of a UTI are physical, having one can also take an emotional toll. “I was, like, pissed. I was livid,” the biology major said. “That first day was the worst, because it was just like, there’s nothing I can do about it and I have to accept that, but just knowing there is a solution and not being able to have it was just frustrating … And then, I have a very physical job and so I was doing stuff and then I’d be caught up in something being like, ‘Wow, I really need to go to the bathroom.’ In my mind, I know that it’s nothing, but it’s still just the frustration and the annoyance and how uncomfortable that is. And just the pent-up pressure and stress of that.”

And even after the symptoms go away, it can leave a lasting impact. “I was just more aware, specifically because my doctor said to make sure you urinate right after [sex], and if you physically can’t do that, to take a shower,” the recent grad said. “And I think for the next three or four months, I did not miss doing either of those things any time because I just didn’t want that to happen again.” 

The biology major described a feeling of paranoia after having had her first UTI. “Post-that, it’s been on my mind more, obviously,” she said. “In my head, it’s almost like when you feel like you’re pregnant … It’s that same feeling of, like, you convince yourself, and you’re fully in that hole of, like, ‘I’m positive I have a UTI.’”

I, too, have experienced a persistent sense of paranoia about getting a UTI ever since November. That month, I had what were either two separate UTIs or simply one and a recurrence of the same one, but either way, it meant about a month of discomfort and treatment with only brief periods of respite. I was so dejected throughout the experience, and have become hyper-aware of every feeling in my bladder ever since. It has definitely made me more nervous about sex than I ever was before.

But it’s not as though we’re completely unarmed in the fight against UTIs. When it comes to sex, there are a lot of things you can do to try to prevent them. “I would say just to try to keep everything clean,” Ramirez Wood said. “So wash [your] hands before any sexual activity. If there are any objects that you’re using, any sex toys or anything like that, make sure that you wash them or be really cautious with them if they’ve been anywhere near the rectum or the anus if they’re coming forward more toward the urethra, which is at the top of the vaginal opening, just be really aware that the primary cause of urinary tract infections is actually E. Coli, and E. Coli comes from the bowel.”

As the recent graduate discovered, you should also definitely pee before and after sex. “It makes a huge difference if a … person with a vagina gets up and pees before sex and then again after sex,” Ramirez Wood said. “It just helps rinse away or wash away any cells or bacteria that might be hanging around the outside of the urethra ready to cause a UTI after sex.”

And as for other forms of protection, Ramirez Wood advises staying well-hydrated to help “clear everything out,” as well as maybe adding a cranberry supplement or unsweetened cranberry juice to your diet, especially if you take it before you go to sleep at night so it can sit in your bladder overnight. Though Ramirez Wood cautions that the research shows that “there’s a component in cranberries and in blueberries that makes it so that the bacteria can’t stick to the urinary tract” is mixed, she has found that it has worked for some, and takes a “why not” approach to it.

After recovering from a UTI, Ramirez Wood said, there isn’t much aftercare to be done, “just being really in tune with your body and aware [of] what might be triggering UTIs for you, and how to take care of yourself around sexual activity to prevent that from happening.”

These practices probably won’t stave off UTIs forever. In fact, it’s incredibly statistically unlikely that they will. But well-equipped with knowledge and preventative measures, though we may worry about it, we will know how to deal with another UTI when it, inevitably, comes.

“I’m definitely more aware of it today … then I used to be, and that helps the fear go away,” the biology major said. “Because I can tell myself, ‘I did this. I know what it feels like now.’ So I know going forward. The fear of the unknown is less there than it used to be.”

Reach Arts & Leisure Editor Sierra Stella at Twitter: @sierramstella

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