Urinary tract infection: What does a UTI feel like?

    Published 28 March 2023
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    Reviewed by Victoria Scott, MD, Diplomate of the American Board of Urology, California, US
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    UTIs may be common infections, but they can be pretty disruptive. Here, Flo users share their experiences of what a UTI really feels like, and we take a look at some expert tips for treating and preventing them.

    As anyone who has ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI) will tell you, they can be more than a little inconvenient. To make matters worse, these nasty infections are pretty common. In fact, one in five women are thought to experience a UTI at least once in their lifetime, while every year there are a whopping 8 to 10 million visits to a doctor due to the infection. So if you’re struck down with a UTI, you can take some comfort in knowing that you’re definitely not alone!

    But what exactly is a UTI, and more importantly, what does it feel like when you have one? As part of our new series exploring the way things feel, we’ve turned to Secret Chats on the Flo app to see what the people in our community are saying about the symptoms of UTIs. We’ve also dug through the research to bring you all the facts you need to know about those frustrating UTIs, as well as some tried-and-tested methods for prevention and those all-important cures. 

    So whether you’ve just been diagnosed with a UTI for the first time and you’re wondering what to expect, or you’ve just discovered you have a UTI again and are after some firsthand advice, then this article is for you.

    What is a urinary tract infection, and what causes it?

    First things first: What exactly is a UTI? Essentially, a UTI is an infection that occurs in any part of the urinary tract (that name makes sense now, right?). As a quick biology lesson to refresh our knowledge, the urinary tract includes the urethra, bladder, ureters (the two tubes that take urine from the kidney to the bladder), and kidneys. The main cause of a UTI is when bacteria gets into the urinary system from outside of the body, generally traveling through the urethra and into the bladder.

    The two most common types of UTI are a bladder infection (which you might have heard referred to as cystitis) and a urethra infection. UTIs are more common in women because we have shorter urethras than men, and they’re closer to the anus, making it easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract. And here’s the real kicker: Not only are we more likely to get UTIs, but we’re also likely to get them again after they’ve been treated. In fact, research suggests that 20% to 30% of women will experience a recurrent UTI, which isn’t fun for anyone.

    Symptoms

    If you’ve found yourself searching “Why does it burn when I pee?” or “Why is my pee cloudy?” online, then yep, you may have a UTI. A UTI doesn’t always cause symptoms, but when it does, the most common signs to look out for include:

    • A strong feeling that you need to pee, even when your bladder is empty
    • Pain or a burning feeling when peeing
    • Urine that looks cloudy or has an unpleasant smell
    • Blood in your urine (this might appear pink, red, or brown)
    • Pelvic pain

    What does a UTI feel like?

    We know what a UTI is, what causes it, and the symptoms to look out for. But what can it actually feel like to have a UTI? Here’s what Flo users have to say (you might find yourself nodding along in sympathetic agreement with some of these comments!):

    • “The SHARP pain in the urethra right after the last drop of pee hits the toilet. Also not being able to rest or sleep [because] of the discomfort and having to literally sit in the toilet for hours just to relieve some of the pain and anxiety. I’m crying right now, [it] hurts so bad.”
    • “I would literally sit on the toilet consecutively once EVERY 30 minutes for the tiniest drop of pee to come out that felt like hell fury.”
    • “It doesn’t even feel like it burns when I pee if I have a UTI. It’s more of an uncomfortable tickle type of feeling, along with peeing every two minutes. That sounds so weird, and when I’ve explained it before, people have looked at me like I was nuts.”
    • “Biggest symptom = burning while peeing and feeling like you have to pee super bad, even if your bladder is empty.”
    • “I used to get multiple UTIs a year. I ALWAYS got one after a new sexual encounter. I’d literally expect to have to go to the doctor two to three days after.”

    Don’t forget, you can read plenty more about experiences of UTIs and a whole host of other female health topics in the Secret Chats section of the Flo app. Plus, you can join in by sharing some of your own — nothing is off limits!

    How can you prevent a UTI?

    There’s no way around it: Having a UTI is not a pleasant experience. Luckily, there are a few simple steps you can take to help prevent yourself from getting an infection in the first place (phew!). Here’s what the experts advise when it comes to preventing a UTI.

    • Drink plenty of water. This will help you to pee more often, meaning it’s more likely that you’ll flush that nasty bacteria out of your urinary tract before an infection can even take hold. 
    • Drink cranberry juice. It could be a good idea to try drinking unsweetened cranberry juice in your mission to prevent a UTI. While researchers aren’t quite sure yet whether cranberry juice can help cure a UTI, there is some evidence to suggest that the drink can at least help to prevent a recurrent UTI from taking hold
    • Try D-mannose. There is also some evidence to suggest that D-mannose, a natural sugar that you can take as a tablet or powder, can help to prevent a UTI from coming back or even help to treat it. Just remember that both cranberry juice and D-mannose are both very sugary, so it’s best to speak to your doctor if you’re considering taking them regularly.
    • Pee after sex. This is an important one. Peeing right after sex can help to flush out any bacteria that could have entered your urinary tract during sex.
    • Wipe from front to back. Every time you use the bathroom, be sure to wipe from front to back. This can help to stop bacteria from working its way from your anus to your vagina and urethra.
    • Consider changing your birth control. Some birth control methods can contribute to bacterial growth in places where you really do not want bacteria to grow. These can include unlubricated condoms, condoms treated with spermicide, and diaphragms.

    How about some suggestions for preventing UTIs from the Flo community? Here’s what they had to say: 

    • “I had horrible cystitis when I became sexually active. I found out that I am very prone to bladder infections, and sex was my trigger. I struggled for years with recurring bladder infections, yeast infections, painful sex, painful urination, and didn’t get the help I needed from my family doctor. Eventually I went to pelvic physiotherapy and that was LIFE CHANGING. Turns out, I was holding tension in my pelvic floor, causing me to retain urine and inflaming my bladder and vagina. I was taught about deep breathing with my stomach and relaxing my pelvic floor. Combined with preventative antibiotics, […] I now haven’t had a bladder infection in years, and I am so happy.” 
    • “Cranberry supplements or just plain cranberry juice and water helps so much. I used to get [UTIs] a lot, but after using that it’s rare for me now.”

    Frequently asked questions about UTIs

    UTI tests and diagnosis

    If you think you have a UTI, then it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor. They will ask about your symptoms and order a urine test if necessary. These tests could include:

    • Urine dipstick test: This is used to check your urine for blood or bacteria. It’s also available as an at-home test kit.
    • Urinalysis: This is used to check your urine for red and white blood cells (which could indicate an infection) and bacteria. 
    • Urine culture: This is used to check what type of bacteria you have in your urine, because different types of bacteria will require different treatments. 

    Treatments for UTIs

    You’ve been drinking lots of water, peeing after sex, wiping front to back, and yet somehow, you’ve still managed to get a UTI. This can be frustrating, but don’t blame yourself. These infections are common because they develop so easily. Luckily, the treatment for a UTI tends to be pretty straightforward, and they can usually be knocked out of your system with a course of antibiotics (just make sure you take the whole course!). Your doctor can check you over and run a urine test to prescribe the best type of antibiotic to kill the particular type of bacteria that’s infected you.

    But what if your UTI comes back right after using antibiotics? If you’re experiencing persistent UTIs, be sure to speak to your doctor again. They might prescribe a different antibiotic for you to try or give you an antibiotic to take more regularly (such as every day, every other day, or every time you have sex). They might also suggest that you see a specialist.

    It’s also possible to treat a UTI without antibiotics, and your doctor might recommend that you try over-the-counter painkillers instead of giving you a prescription. Alongside that, you can also try some self-care options to treat a UTI, including:

    • Getting plenty of rest
    • Drinking lots of fluids
    • Avoiding having sex

    Whatever option is recommended, remember that it’s always important to treat a UTI to prevent a more serious infection, such as a kidney infection, from taking hold.

    Risk factors

    There are a few things that can put you at an increased risk of developing a UTI. These can include

    If you are at an increased risk of developing a UTI, it can help to follow the advice above on preventing the infection from taking hold. And always be sure to chat with your doctor about any concerns you may have.

    The takeaway: What does a UTI feel like?

    As we’ve heard, being struck down by a UTI is not a pleasant experience. From a desperate (and constant) need to pee to a burning and stinging pain when that pee comes out, a UTI can be both painful and inconvenient. After all, who wants to spend their time desperately searching for the nearest bathroom or sitting on the toilet for hours on end? That’s no way to live!

    Luckily, there are a bunch of simple preventive methods you can try to help protect yourself against getting a UTI in the first place, from peeing after sex to drinking lots of water and always wiping front to back when you use the bathroom. And while UTIs and recurrent UTIs are more common in women, the good news is that they’re relatively straightforward to treat. After checking you over and running some tests, your doctor will likely prescribe a course of antibiotics or suggest you try over-the-counter painkillers and self-care methods. 

    If you get a UTI, be sure to be kind to yourself and get all the rest you need. And don’t forget that you can vent about those infuriating symptoms and hear from people in the same situation over on the Flo app. We’ve got your back!

    References

    Domenici, L., et al. “D-Mannose: A Promising Support for Acute Urinary Tract Infections in Women. A Pilot Study.” European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, vol. 20, no. 13, July 2016, pp. 2920–25.

    Fu, Zhuxuan, et al. “Cranberry Reduces the Risk of Urinary Tract Infection Recurrence in Otherwise Healthy Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 147, no. 12, Dec. 2017, pp. 2282–88.

    “Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis).” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15456-kidney-infection-pyelonephritis. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.

    Mambatta, Anith Kumar, et al. “Reliability of Dipstick Assay in Predicting Urinary Tract Infection.” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, vol. 4, no. 2, Apr.–June 2015, pp. 265–68.

    “Recurrent Uncomplicated Urinary Tract Infections in Women: AUA/CUA/SUFU Guideline (2022). American Urological Association, 2019, www.auanet.org/guidelines-and-quality/guidelines/recurrent-uti

    “Urinary Tract Infection (Lower) - Women: How Common Is It?” National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, cks.nice.org.uk/topics/urinary-tract-infection-lower-women/background-information/prevalence/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.

    “Urinary Tract Infection.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Jan. 2022, www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/uti.html.

    “Urinary Tract Infections.” Cleveland Clinic, my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9135-urinary-tract-infections. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.

    “Urinary Tract Infection (UTI).” Mayo Clinic, 14 Sep. 2022, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/urinary-tract-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20353447.

    “Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs).” NHS, www.nhs.uk/conditions/urinary-tract-infections-utis/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2023.

    History of updates

    Current version (28 March 2023)

    Reviewed by Victoria Scott, MD, Diplomate of the American Board of Urology, California, US

    Published (28 March 2023)

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