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UTI or yeast infection: What’s the difference?

A breakdown of the differences between these commonly confused infections
November 14, 2019

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections are two distinct yet common conditions among women that may present with similar symptoms. This can make it tricky to determine which infection is present when symptoms appear, making “self-diagnosis” not always accurate. Hector Chapa, MD, a Texas A&M College of Medicine OB-GYN, weighs in on the common confusion between the two and how you can help tell the difference.

Urinary tract infection (UTI)

A UTI is a bacterial infection that occurs in the urinary tract. Usually, a UTI refers to a bladder infection, which is called cystitis. UTIs are extremely common; around 50–60% of women will experience this infection at least once during their lifetimes. Symptoms of UTIs include a burning sensation while urinating, frequently needing to urinate or inability to urinate completely. These infections are a result of bacterial overgrowth in the bladder. This is most often caused by E. Coli bacteria.

UTIs are not sexually transmitted infections. However, having vaginal sexual intercourse can predispose women to UTIs by introducing bacteria into the urinary tract. One approach women can take to prevent contracting a UTI this way is to urinate within the first 20 minutes after sexual activity. This can help flush the bacteria from the urinary tract.

Over-the-counter UTI medications can help reduce pain during urination but will not eliminate the bacteria. These medications should be used in complement to antibiotics prescribed by physicians to alleviate symptoms while the antibiotic works to remove the bacteria. If left untreated, bacteria may persist in the urinary tract and can progress to a kidney infection, which can be more serious than a simple bladder infection. Chapa also advises that women should seek out medical attention if there is blood present in the urine.

A common DIY approach used to treat UTIs is drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry pills. There is some science behind this at-home-remedy, which may help prevent bacteria from “sticking” to the bladder. However, it is best to seek medical help to see if antibiotics are necessary. This can be determined by a quick urine test at the provider’s office. Chapa also notes it is always a good idea to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water to help flush the existing bacteria out of your urinary tract by casing more frequent urination.

Yeast infection

Yeast infections are also very common and not considered sexually transmitted infections. A yeast infection occurs when vaginal yeast production becomes excessive. Yeast thrives in warm and humid environments, so one common way that yeast infections occur is from wearing sweaty workout clothes or wet swimsuits for long periods of time. Additional causes of yeast infections include hormonal changes in the body that may arise from birth control pills, pregnancy and taking certain antibiotics. In fact, some antibiotics used to treat UTIs can lead to yeast infections.

Similar to UTIs, one symptom of yeast infections may be a burning sensation while urinating. This is especially true if the vaginal yeast infection has caused the external vagina area (called the vulva) to become swollen and irritated. Additional symptoms include thick, white to yellow-green colored discharge, irritation and itchiness. These symptoms may be extremely uncomfortable and can be alleviated with certain over-the-counter medications. While it is reasonable to try some over-the-counter yeast medications, and yeast infections can go away on their own, Chapa emphasized that it is important to seek medical help if symptoms do not improve with the use of these medications.

Some women may experience frequent yeast infections. In these cases, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider because it may be an indication of other medical conditions, such as diabetes or immune-related illnesses.

What women should know

When it comes to self-diagnosis, Chapa advises women to be smart and use discretion. Many women are familiar with the symptoms of UTIs and yeast infections, but if you are unsure, you should contact your health care provider to determine the cause of your symptoms.

Additionally, although these two particular conditions are not sexually transmitted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that all sexually active men and women under the age of 26 should be screened for sexually transmitted infections at least once a year.

At the very least, visiting your physician can help put your mind at ease. “It’s human nature to jump to worst-case scenario conclusions,” Chapa said, “but these infections are very common and treatable.” The best course of action to relieve uncomfortable symptoms from each of these infections is to seek treatment as soon as symptoms arise.

Article written by Ava English

— Christina Sumners

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