Medically reviewed by Leah Millheiser, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 10/22/2019
Does this scenario sound familiar? You go to urinate and instead of relief it feels like your genitals have burst into flames. No matter how hard you try to empty your bladder, that “last drop” just never comes out. And practically as soon you wipe, you feel the urge to go again.
If so, you have likely suffered from a urinary tract infection (UTI).
UTIs are approximately zero fun, but with the right precautions and proper knowledge, it’s possible to help lessen their frequency and treat them quickly.
Your urinary tract includes your kidneys, ureters (tubes that take urine from the kidneys to the bladder), your bladder and your urethra. UTIs occur when bacteria enter the urethra and begin to multiply in the bladder. This can cause urethritis (infection of the urethra) and cystitis (infection of the bladder). Most UTIs happen in these two places, but if not treated, they can cause a dangerous infection in the kidneys, called pyelonephritis.
There are some anatomical realities that make female genitals far more prone to UTIs than males — which is why half of all women get at least one UTI in their lifetime. There’s not a lot of space between our urethras where urine comes out, our vaginas and our anuses.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot going on in these areas, and their close proximity makes them particularly susceptible to the spread of bacteria.
If you suspect that you have a UTI, you should speak with a clinician right away. Symptoms of a UTI include frequent urination, feeling like you can't completely empty your bladder and a burning sensation when you urinate. Your urine may also look cloudy and/or have a different odor and color (pink, red or brown-tinged due to the presence of blood). The clinician will be able to test your urine and prescribe the right antibiotic, which should have you feeling better in just a few days.
And make sure you don’t stop the antibiotics early because you’re feeling better! You need to complete the full course of treatment.
Once urinating stops feeling like a medieval form of torture, you might start wondering what you can do to prevent a UTI in the future. Though we can’t promise you’ll never suffer through that again, there are some steps you can take that might help.
These are especially important for women who have recurrent UTIs — those who experience more than two infections in six months, or more than three in the span of one year.
We all know how important staying hydrated is, but some of us stop our liquid intake after the second cup of morning coffee.
Drinking more than enough liquid and staying properly hydrated ensures that you urinate frequently, which helps flush bacteria out of the bladder and urethra — or, at least, that’s the logic. One study shows that in groups of women experiencing recurrent bladder infections who drank less than 1.5 liters of water per day, women who upped their water intake (by 1.5 liters per day) over the span of 12 months experienced fewer UTIs.
It’s easy to ignore the urge to urinate, especially when you’re in the middle of something else. Getting up from your computer when you’re finally making some progress at work or pausing your latest television binge is a pain, but holding it in can allow bacteria to grow. At the first sensation that you have to urinate, get up and go.
We don’t imagine many of you haven’t yet received the memo on this one, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Always wipe front to back to minimize the possibility of bacteria traveling from the anus or vagina (which are toward the back) into the urethra (which is toward the front).
If you empty your bladder soon after intercourse or other sexual activity, you can flush the urethra out and hopefully get rid of any bacteria that might have been pushed in during intercourse.
There is no reason for your vulva to smell like a field of wild strawberries or the first morning dew. Soap — unscented or mildly scented is best — and water in the shower is enough to clean your vulva and your vagina cleans itself.
So, skip any scented feminine hygiene products and don’t bother with douching, as all of these things can irritate the urethra.
Spermicides that come on condoms or get used with diaphragms can also cause irritation to some users, as can non-lubricated condoms. Spermicides may also kill off Lactobacilli, a type of beneficial bacteria in vaginas, which makes it easier for harmful bacteria to move in and mess things up.
Choose a condom with a high quality silicone- or water-based lubricant and add some extra lubrication as well to cut down on irritation. Diaphragms themselves might add to your UTI risk because they have to sit in the vagina for six hours after sex. You can still urinate, but may have trouble emptying your bladder completely.
Diaphragms aren’t all that popular these days, but if you’re one of the people still using this birth control method, consider a switch.
There may be some truth to the old wives’ tale that cranberry juice can help prevent UTIs, though studies are iffy on whether and why this might work.
If you want to give it a try, remember we’re talking about the real, tart, 100 percent juice version; not the sugary stuff of juice-boxes.
There are also a number of supplements on the market that contain D-mannose, a simple sugar that is thought to hinder bacteria from latching onto the urinary tract lining and growing. There is evidence that patients who take D-mannose supplements are less likely to experience recurrent UTIs than those who don’t take a D-mannose supplement.
Antibiotics are used to treat UTIs and in some people with frequent recurring infections, they are also used as a prevention method. Healthcare providers sometimes prescribe a low dose of an antibiotic daily for six months to prevent infections.
If most of your UTIs follow sexual activity, they may instead suggest a single dose taken after sex. Of course, antibiotics can throw other things — like the good bacteria in your gut and vagina — out of whack, which can lead to issues like diarrhea and yeast infections. Bacteria may also become resistant over prolonged use.
If you get frequent UTIs, you should discuss prevention ideas with your healthcare provider.
UTIs can feel like the worst form of punishment and have you asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” every time you hit the bathroom. First, know that you have our sympathy, and second, be confident in the fact that it’s not your fault — a UTI is not a sign of poor personal hygiene or promiscuity. And find some comfort in knowing there are little steps that you can take that might help prevent another UTI from ever starting.