UTIs occur more commonly in people with vulvas, the Mayo Clinic says. Why? The urethra of someone with a vulva is much shorter than that of someone with a penis, reducing the distance bacteria needs to travel in and up the urethra, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is part of the reason there are very clear best practices for sexual activity and wiping after using the restroom (more on that later).
Once you have a burning sensation or urgency, you'll likely need to see your doctor so that they can test for an infection. Doctors usually determine a patient has a UTI by testing their urine for evidence of infection-causing bacteria. But there are preventative measures you can take before you feel the telltale UTI signs. Below, you'll find a few tips that encompass diet, hygiene, and sexual health.
1. Stay on top of your hydration
Hydration is one of the most important ways to prevent a UTI, says Rena Deep Malik, MD, urologist and assistant professor and director of Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery at The University of Maryland. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 143 pre-menopausal women were given 1.5L more fluid than they usually drink, reducing the incidence of UTIs by 46 percent. Though many stress the usefulness of cranberry juice, Dr. Malik shares that staying on top of your water intake is more important.
Another expert in the field shares this sentiment as well. Steven Lamm, MD, researcher, medical director at NYU Langone Health, also stresses hydration as the primary way to stave off and alleviate UTI symptoms. "Consume plenty of liquids throughout the day. This will increase the body's need to urinate. By urinating frequently, you flush out lingering UTI-causing bacteria, commonly found to be E. coli, from the urethra before they can cause any damage," says Dr. Lamm. He also adds that you should limit beverages that cause dehydration, such as coffee, if you suspect you have a UTI.
2. Practice the correct hygiene techniques in the bathroom
UTI-causing bacteria are commonly found in the rectum. The Mayo Clinic explains that UTIs are often caused when said bacteria, like E. coli, make their way into the urethra from the anus. As a result of the vulva's proximity to the anus, one significant way to prevent a UTI is wiping from front to back when pooping, peeing, or sanitizing that area because of menstruation.
One way they can make their way to the urinary tract is through the urethra. After using the bathroom, always wipe from front to back as this decreases the risk of bringing bacteria from the anus to the urethra," says Dr. Lamm.
When professionals, close friends, or family recommend that you wipe front to back, they might assume that the meaning of this is obvious. If you're curious, "front" refers to the vulva, and "back" refers to the anus. Taking toilet paper and pulling it from the vulva towards the anus is much more effective at preventing a UTI than the other way around.
3. Remember to pee after sex
When it comes to the mechanics of UTI prevention, peeing after sex and wiping front to back serve similar purposes. Both techniques limit bacteria from making their way into the urinary tract through the urethra.
As a result, many experts recommend that you pee after having sex, including Barbara Ann Hannah, MD, MS, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist. The kind of sex referred to here is any activity that happens around or near the urethra of the vulva-owning person (i.e., stimulation with a toy, cunnilingus, or penetration with a toy, hands, dildo, or penis). Why? These activities can push bacteria around, in, or near the urethral opening—giving them an easier chance to enter the urinary tract. Peeing after sex helps flush out bacteria that may have come in contact with the urethra during sex. This bacteria could be your own or from your partner; either way, flushing it out by peeing a few minutes after sex can prevent bacteria from multiplying in your urethra. Sometimes it would be nice to just go straight to sleep after sex or stay in bed with your partner, but that quick run to the restroom can really keep bacteria out of places it shouldn't be.
4. Consult your doctor if you have symptoms
Although there are ways to prevent urinary infections, if you have a UTI or fear that you might have one, it's essential to see your doctor for treatment and evaluation. Persistent pain or symptoms might indicate an infection requiring medical treatment. These preventative tips cannot serve as a replacement for vital infection-fighting antibiotics and pain medicine if you end up having a UTI.
Dr. Hannah explains that, if left untreated, UTIs can cause bladder and kidney infections, too. Unlike UTIs, she says, these infections are more serious, painful, and may require hospitalization. To make sure that your UTI does not evolve into something more severe, it is important to monitor symptoms as they appear.
A common misconception that Dr. Malik runs into when treating UTI patients is the fear that the condition means they're dirty or lack good hygiene behaviors. "A lot of people come to me very emphatic about the fact that they're very clean because they're afraid that getting UTIs over and over again makes them dirty," she says. Let's be clear: UTIs don't mean anything about you as a person—they are a common, treatable, and everyday occurrence.
So even though that stinging feeling can be alarming and downright disappointing, trying these small UTI prevention habits can—like an apple a day—really help keep the doctor away.
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