Itching, burning or the constant urge to go — when it comes to problems down there, figuring out what’s wrong can be a tricky task. That’s because many issues that affect the vagina present with symptoms that may seem similar or even overlapping.
This is particularly true when it comes to urinary tract infections and yeast infections, two of the most common to afflict women — about 50% to 60% will experience a UTI at least once in her lifetime, and around 75% of women will experience a yeast infection at some point.
“These conditions can sometimes mirror one another because they both cause vaginal and bladder irritation,” says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an ob-gyn, women’s health expert, and founder of Sanctum Wellness in Dallas, Texas.
UTI symptoms include:
- A persistent urge to urinate, even if the bladder is empty and not much comes out
- Burning, stinging or discomfort when urinating
- Abdominal pain or cramping, especially when urinating
- Cloudy or bloody urine
- Pelvic pain
- Pain in the lower back or flank
- Fever, chills, nausea
Yeast infection symptoms include:
- Constant itching, burning, or pain when urinating
- Abnormal discharge (white and cottage cheese-like)
- Itching or irritation in the vaginal area
- Vaginal pain or soreness
UTIs occur when bacteria gets into the vaginal area, giving it the opportunity to travel up to the urethra or bladder where it becomes a full-blown infection and triggers uncomfy symptoms, explains Dr. Shepherd. Women are more likely than men to get one (although men can have a UTI, too) because our urethras (the pathway to the bladder) are shorter, making the bacterial journey easier.
Yeast infections happen when there’s an overgrowth of yeast that disrupts the vagina’s delicate microbiome. “Yeast naturally grows in our vaginas, along with other ‘good’ bacteria, but sometimes these levels can become imbalanced, leading to an infection,” says Staci Tanouye, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN in Jacksonville, Florida and a Poise partner. “This can be caused by things like taking antibiotics, pregnancy, diabetes or a compromised immune system.”
You need antibiotics to get rid of a UTI, so schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms. “If left untreated, a UTI could potentially spread to the kidneys, causing pain in the lower back or side, as well as fever, chills, or nausea,” Dr. Shepherd says.
Yeast infections can be treated with antifungal medications, but always talk to your doctor before trying any over-the-counter products, Dr. Tanouye says. Your doctor can help you determine which medication is right for you (there are oral options or suppositories that you insert into the vagina, as well as creams to help alleviate discomfort like itching).
Yeast infections require antifungal medications. These can be prescribed or purchased without a prescription and are available in a variety of treatments. You may take an oral medication, use a topical substance, or even insert a suppository. The duration of treatment varies and can range anywhere from one dose to multiple doses over a week’s time. Just like UTIs, you should take the yeast infection medication for the entire recommended duration to prevent the condition from coming back.
It’s possible that you have recurring UTIs and yeast infections that require a more aggressive treatment. Your doctor will outline these treatments if you experience multiple infections over a short course of time.
“Lifestyle factors can go a long way in helping you ward off UTIs and yeast infections,” says Dr. Shepherd. Here are some tactics to keep in mind:
- Stay hydrated. “This can help prevent mild UTIs because fluids help flush bacteria from the urinary tract while decreasing inflammation,” Dr. Tanouye says.
- Exercise. Being active supports a strong immune system, which is important for you to be able to fight off infections.
- Ditch tight clothing. “Wear breathable clothing and keep skin dry,” Dr. Tanouye says, and try to change out of damp or sweaty clothing as soon as possible. Yeast thrives in warm, moist environments.
- Avoid scented products. Feminine perfumes, deodorants, wipes or tampons that are scented may disrupt the makeup of vaginal bacteria, causing infection.
- Wipe from front to back. This can help prevent you from spreading bacteria (which may cause a UTI) from the rectum to the vagina.
- Don’t douche. This can disrupt your vagina’s natural bacterial makeup, which may lead to a yeast infection.
UTIs are common, with 10 in 25 women, and 3 in 25 men experiencing a UTI in their lifetime. Women experience UTIs more commonly than men because a woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s, and closer to the vagina and anus, resulting in more exposure to bacteria.
You may also be more at risk for a UTI if you:
- are sexually active
- are pregnant
- are currently using or have used antibiotics recently
- are obese
- have gone through menopause
- have given birth to multiple children
- have diabetes
- have or have had a kidney stone or another blockage in your urinary tract
- have a weakened immune system
Women experience yeast infections more frequently than men, and 75 percent of women will get a yeast infection in their lifetime. Yeast infections commonly occur in the vagina and vulva, but you can also get a yeast infection on your breast if you’re breast feeding and in other moist areas of the body, like the mouth. A vaginal yeast infection is not a sexually transmitted infection, but in rare occasions you can pass it to your partner during sex.
Your risk of contracting a vaginal yeast infection increases if:
- you’re between puberty and menopause
- you’re pregnant
- you use hormonal birth control
- you have diabetes and don’t manage high blood sugar effectively
- you’re using or have recently used antibiotics or steroids
- you use products in your vaginal area like douches
- you have a compromised immune system
Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2006″. MMWR Recomm Rep. 55 (RR-11): 1–94. PMID 16888612. Archived from the original on 2014-10-20.
Thrush in men and women”. nhs.uk. 2018-01-09. Retrieved 2021-01-16.
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