By Lindsey Ellefson.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town, my public school sex education was full of plenty of colorful, unflattering metaphors for girls who have sex before marriage (think licked lollipops and used Kleenex) and no information about how to prevent pregnancy and STIs if or when one of us lollipops did decide to have sex. Fortunately, with the help of the Internet and friends with worldly older siblings, I learned a lot on my own and by graduation felt prepared for any situation. Unfortunately, there was one important thing my classes and personal research had overlooked: urinary tract infections (UTIs).
I learned this the hard way one year later when I found myself sitting on the floor of my dorm bathroom at 1 a.m. in excruciating pain. I’d just gotten into my first serious sexual relationship and even though I’d never experienced that sort of precise, consistent stomachache before, I quickly made a connection between the previous weeks’ activities and my current situation.
Who could I call? If I was right and there was some link between sex and the pain, I wasn’t about to call my parents. Unsure if it was some sort of STI, I didn’t want to accusingly call my new boyfriend before I had more answers. I actually found myself wondering if this was some cosmic retribution for not waiting for marriage to have sex, like my high school sex ed teachers said. (Heads up: it’s not!)
I had no idea what was wrong with me, why I was doubled over in pain, or why I kept thinking I had to pee and running to the bathroom only to discover I didn’t have to go at all. I spent the night in the bathroom, Googling my symptoms. Every site said the same thing: I had a UTI, which is caused by an influx of bacteria near the urethral opening. All I could think was, How did I not know this could happen?
As it turns out, I’m not alone in having this particular blind spot about sexual health. I reached out to some friends and they all told a similar story: they had at least a general knowledge of STI and pregnancy prevention before having sex, but were blindsided by a UTI, only learning about the correlation between doin’ it and phantom pee urges after experiencing them. Over 50% of women get a urinary tract infection at least once. 80% of those women had sex within the previous 24 hours. I can’t help wondering how many painful infections and time-consuming doctors’ visits could’ve been avoided if people were better educated on the topic.
To save other young women from crying in bathrooms, or at least from running to and from them, let’s go over how to detect, treat, and, most importantly, prevent UTIs.
Detecting a UTI
UTI symptoms are pretty distinct. Any of the following signs could indicate one:
It burns when you pee.
You feel like you have to urinate all the time but whenever you go, not much comes out.
When you do pee, it’s cloudy or strangely colored and/or smells bad.
You feel sleepy and achy, especially in your lower abdomen.
Treating a UTI
If you think you might have a UTI, go to a health care provider right away. The test is super easy (just pee in a cup!) and then you’re pharmacy-bound, soon to be pain-free. There are a lot of websites that claim to have “home remedies” for UTIs but infections—especially ones that are further along—can’t always be home-remedied away. Many websites recommend cranberry juice, but this functions better as a preventative measure than a treatment. There are over-the-counter medications like Azo and Cystex that can help you manage until you get an appointment, but don’t rely on these alone. The best way to make sure you fully get rid of the infection is prescription antibiotics.
Take it from me. In my fear and uncertainty, I waited too long to get help for my UTI and I ended up in the emergency room with blood in my urine. You see, infections don’t like to stay in one place; they’re movers and shakers. UTIs start in the urethra, which is close enough to the anus and vagina to make it easily accessible to a variety of bacteria. Then they migrate, first to the bladder, then to the kidneys. This can result in a serious fever and kidney damage, not to mention alarmingly bloody urine, so don’t delay treatment.
Remember when I said I didn’t want to involve my parents or boyfriend? I have a feeling they would’ve preferred to hear from me the first night as opposed to three days later, from the ER. Never, ever be too embarrassed or shy to put your health first.
Preventing a UTI
Better than treatment, of course, is prevention. Here are a few of the most common recommendations for preventing UTIs:
If you gotta’ go, go; never hold it.
Always wipe from front to back.
Keep it clean down there with plain old water—some sexual health experts say you shouldn’t even use soap on the vulva. You definitely shouldn’t use soap in the vagina—or vaginal douches, for that matter. (They can actually cause infections.)
Drink lots of water (6 to 8 cups per day).
There’s some evidence that drinking real cranberry juice (with no added sugar) can help women with recurring UTIs to have fewer infections.
Avoid tight-fitting undies and opt for cotton crotches.
The ultimate UTI prevention tip: My final piece of advice comes from a friend who suddenly started getting UTIs after she became sexually active: “I wish I’d known how simple they are to prevent. Just pee after sex.”
That’s what her doctor told her and what my doctor eventually told me. Sadly, it took painful infections and hefty co-pays for us to get into our doctors’ offices and hear this simple but crucial bit of wisdom. So learn from our experience, have fun… and don’t forget to use the bathroom afterward!
*Editor’s Note: Most of these tips for prevention are common wisdom and may be recommended by health care professionals, but they haven’t necessarily been studied in controlled clinical trials.
Lindsey Ellefson is a writer and activist who is downright obsessed with advocating for reproductive justice, promoting sex positivity, and generally sticking it to The Man. To keep up with her and read her latest work, follow her on Twitter @lindseydawn_.