Is This Normal? is a weekly series that addresses everything you've ever wondered about sexual health and your body. This week: urinary tract infections.
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Hell hath no fury like waking up, going to the restroom, and feeling like your pee is gasoline and someone just lit a match nearby. Urinary tract infections are always terrible, are maybe the most sexist thing that exists in this world (men don't really get them that often), and are totally normal in that so many women suffer from them. But they're still nothing to be messed with and can turn dangerous if left untreated. Cosmopolitan.com consulted some experts to help all of us out,
What causes UTIs?
Urinary tract infections (also sometimes called bladder infections) happen when bacteria travels up your urethra to your bladder. The most common type of bacteria that causes these infections is E. coli, which can be found on the skin but causes problems when it gets into your body and starts multiplying. The most common cause of UTIs in women is when bacteria from your vagina winds up in your urethra (because a penis, finger, or some other device pushes it there) and that bacteria isn't cleared out by peeing within a short period of time. So yes, peeing after sex thing is real and crucial, and you should absolutely be doing it, even if getting out of bed is the last thing you want after a good orgasm.
Certain types of birth control also lead to more UTIs—particularly spermicide and diaphragms. Sometimes preventing future infections is as simple as switching birth control. But women who aren't having sex can also develop UTIs, so abstinence isn't exactly the magic cure. If your bladder isn't emptying all the way (because of some sort of blockage in the urethra, or problems with your pelvic muscles), that can also cause a UTI. Basically, your bladder is usually fine and healthy as long as it's able to push out all of its contents and all the bacteria that might be in there too.
UTIs are recurring.
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Because the world is incredibly unfair, women are much more likely to get UTIs than men. About 1 in 5 women will get a UTI in her lifetime, and UTIs are responsible for about 10 million doctor visits in the U.S. every year. They're also recurring nightmares—if you have one, you'll probably have more. Blame this (at least a little bit) on your anatomy.
The reason some women seem prone to UTIs is usually the same reason women get more UTIs than men, in general. Our urethra is much shorter than a man's urethra—only 1.5 inches on average, compared to about 8 inches on average for men. So bacteria have a much shorter distance to travel in women than in men. This is a little more gross, but in the female anatomy, the opening point of the urethra is also much closer to the anus than it is on men. So all that bacteria that lives in and around your butt is much more likely to wind up in your urinary tract and bladder.
Women who get UTIs seemingly every single time they have sex probably have a shortened urethra—which is totally normal and doesn't really affect your daily life, aside from the fact that you might get UTIs more easily. If this is you, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic that you can take after sex. The rest of us just need to be really vigilant about going pee after any sort of sexual activity and make sure we're drinking plenty of water.
When UTIs aren't normal, you need to see a doctor.
I personally believe it's absolutely insane that women still have to go to the doctor to get an antibiotic when the symptoms of UTIs are almost impossible to misinterpret (there's nothing worse than having to pee in a cup when you're already in a ton of pain), but this is how the world works. So. Here we are.
Before you see your doctor, give yourself a day or two (and a lot of water). Some UTIs are pretty mild and go away without antibiotics in a few hours.
But if after two days you're still in pain and peeing a lot, it's time to see the doctor. You should also see a doctor sooner than that if you have a fever, throw up, have blood in your pee, or feel pain in your lower back. Because your urinary tract is connected to your kidneys, a UTI can turn into a kidney infection (formally called pyelonephritis) if it's particularly bad or left untreated. And a kidney infection is nothing to fuck with—if it isn't treated quickly enough, kidney infections can leave permanent scars on your kidneys, which can lead to kidney failure.
*** This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.