Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are serious pains in the butt or, more anatomically speaking, the urethra. They're defined by the Mayo Clinic as bacterial infections anywhere in the urinary system– however, they are most commonly present in the urethra at first. And according to Aleece Fosnight, PA-C, a specialist in urinary health, sexual health, and women's health, and the medical advisor to Aeroflow Urology, it's best to treat UTIs before they spread higher up in the urinary system to the bladder or kidneys. While this type of infection is pretty common, there are a number of UTI myths out there that can make it confusing to figure out whether you're dealing with UTI or something else, and then how to go about getting treatment.
- Aleece Fosnight, MSPAS, PA-C, urology and women’s health specialist at Aeroflow Urology
If you are experiencing symptoms like burning, abdominal pain, and consistent urgency to pee, Fosnight says it's best to contact a health-care provider to get a diagnosis, and antibiotics, if necessary. Because UTI myths are so pervasive, and can even delay you getting the treatment you need, Fosnight breaks down some of the most common falsehoods when it comes to urinary health.
The 5 most common UTI myths
1. That painful urination, odor, urgency, and frequency are the only symptoms of a UTI
"These symptoms typically occur in someone with a healthy immune system. Our immune system starts to dwindle around age 30, so our response to an infection always dwindles, and we don't elicit the same symptom response," says Fosnight. For folks over the age of 65, mental confusion may be the only symptom that's present, she adds.
2. That people with penises don't get UTIs
It's commonly assumed that people with penises can't get UTIs. The truth is that anyone can get a urinary tract infection, regardless of gender or anatomy. However, people with vulvas are more susceptible to UTIs simply because of their anatomy—the urethra is shorter in people with vulvas, which gives bacteria easier access into the urinary tract. Also, of note, people going through menopause (typically women between the ages of 45 and 55 and trans individuals on hormone replacement therapy-induced menopause) can be even more susceptible to UTIs than the average vulva-haver. This is because menopause increases dryness and lubrication in the vulva and alters the vaginal microbiome.
For people with penises, there are a couple of things that can up your risk for a UTI. One is an enlarged prostate, as it can cause the bladder to retain urine which can lead to an infection. And, people with penises who have anal sex without a barrier method of protection can contract a UTI from that exposure to UTI-causing bacteria, says Fosnight.
3. Cranberry supplements or juice will treat a UTI
Many people like to try more "natural" remedies to treat an infection rather than go on antibiotics. Cranberry has long been used as a method for treating a UTI and can be seen in Eastern medicine practices, and there is some science to support that it can help. In cranberries, there is a substance called proanthocyanidins that are thought to protect the bladder lining from the bacteria of a UTI sticking to the walls, according to Fosnight. If the bacteria cannot stick to the walls, the bacteria will simply be flushed out with urine when you empty your bladder. The problem, says Fosnight, is if your UTI is pronounced enough to give you the common symptoms—you likely need to see a provider for antibiotics.
Most infections are caught too late to start cranberry treatment, and although the cranberry will help decrease the bacterial load in the bladder, most of the time, it will not completely treat the infection. There is also some misinformation about how to use cranberry effectively—you need to take around 400 mg of cranberry extract twice daily or eight to 10 ounces of pure unsweetened cranberry juice three to four times a day to help flush out the bacteria. Unfortunately, many people will drink cranberry juice that is sweetened, which could actually make the symptoms worse. "Typically, I encourage folks with frequent UTIs to use cranberry as a preventative measure," rather than a treatment, Fosnight says.
4. UTIs are sexually transmitted
This one is a little confusing because UTIs can happen as a result of penetrative sexual activity, but they are not technically sexually transmitted infections. Sexual activity can introduce bacteria near the opening of the urethra due to intercourse. However, they are not a type of infection that can be transmitted from one person to the next.
5. Constipation has nothing to do with UTIs
Being constipated causes increased pressure on the abdominal cavity and therefore places more pressure on the bladder, causing difficulty with emptying the bladder completely, Fosnight says. Even a little extra urine left behind in the bladder is an opportunity for bacteria to hang out and cause an infection. "We see this in younger kiddos but it can also occur at any age," says Fosnight.
While this isn't a complete list of UTI myths, the most important piece of advice is to see a health-care provider if you're experiencing any symptoms of a urinary tract infection, says Fosnight. They will be able to figure out what's going on and get you some relief as soon as possible.
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