Can sex cause a urinary tract infection (UTI)?
Yes, having sex could lead to a urinary tract infection (UTI), although it’s not technically the cause. Sexual activity does not transmit the infection itself, but being sexually active increases your chance of getting a UTI.
Sex is a clear risk factor for UTI:
- Intercourse or other sex acts can spread germs from the anal or vaginal area (where they are harmless) to the urethral opening, where they can cause an infection to grow.
- Escherichia coli (E. coli), a type of harmless bacterium mainly found in the lower intestine and anal area, accounts for 75-95% of uncomplicated UTIs.
Normally your body keeps a healthy balance of bacteria in the genital area. But sometimes, this movement of microbes toward the urinary tract area can cause problems.
Women are more prone to urinary tract infections
Women are more likely than men to develop a UTI because of their anatomy. A woman's urethra is shorter and nearer to the rectum than a man’s. Its shorter length allows bacteria to more easily travel up the urethral tube and into the bladder, causing an infection.
The proximity of the anus, vagina and urethral opening on the female body enables bacteria to move from the anus to the urethra or from the vagina to the urethra fairly easily.
This is why UTIs are more common among sexually active women.
Women who have recently begun having sex, have frequent sex or have recently had sex with a new partner may be more at risk of a UTI.
- Having protected sex (using a condom) will not prevent UTIs because bacteria can still get moved around and end up in the urinary tract. However, it will reduce the occurrence of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
- Having unprotected sex also puts you at risk of a UTI and increases the risk of pregnancy and STIs.
Also, using certain types of birth control — like diaphragms, spermicides or spermicide-coated condoms — can increase the risk of developing a UTI:
- Spermicide comes in a variety of forms and is used during intercourse to prevent pregnancy. Spermicidal agents can upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina, increasing the risk that bad bacteria can travel on to the urinary tract.
- Using a diaphragm can put pressure on the urethra, making it harder to completely empty the bladder, increasing the risk of infection.
How to lower your risk of a urinary tract infection
There are some personal hygiene habits and birth control choices that may help you lower your risk of a UTI:
- Urinate after sex
- Urinate often and empty your bladder fully
- Do not douche or use feminine sprays or powders in the genital area
- Drink lots of water
- Wipe from front to back
- Change your birth control method if you use spermicides or diaphragms
Women with recurrent UTIs may be prescribed long-term antibiotics or advised to take an antibiotic after sex to prevent future episodes. Someone who experiences two or more infections in six months or more than three infections within a year likely has a recurrent UTI.
Other risk factors for urinary tract infections
Besides gender, sexual activity and using spermicides or diaphragms, other factors that may increase your risk of developing a UTI include:
- Having a previous UTI
- Urinary tract abnormalities
- Problems with emptying the bladder completely
- Having a urinary catheter
- Recent urinary exam or surgery
Urinary tract infection symptoms
A UTI is not considered an STI, but STIs can have similar symptoms. A medical history and testing can help differentiate between the two.
Common UTI symptoms include:
- Pain or burning while urinating
- Persistent urge to urinate even when bladder is empty
- Pressure or pain in lower abdomen
Other symptoms may include cloudy or bloody urine with an unusual odor.
UTIs can spread to any part of your urinary tract, including the kidneys. If the infection has spread to your kidneys, you may experience:
- Back pain
- Nausea or vomiting
A kidney infection is a serious condition and requires immediate medical attention.
- Lee DS, Lee SJ, Choe HS. Community-Acquired Urinary Tract Infection by Escherichia coli in the Era of Antibiotic Resistance. Biomed Res Int. 2018;2018:7656752. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/7656752.
- The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Urinary Tract Infections. February 2019. Available at: https://www.acog.org/patient-resources/faqs/gynecologic-problems/urinary-tract-infections. [Accessed September 28, 2020].
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Urinary Tract Infection. August 27, 2019. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/uti.html. [Accessed September 28, 2020].
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office on Women’s Health. Urinary Tract Infections. Available at: https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/urinary-tract-infections. [Accessed September 28, 2020].
- Urology Care Foundation. What is a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Adults? April, 2019. Available at: https://www.urologyhealth.org/urologic-conditions/urinary-tract-infections-in-adults. [Accessed September 28, 2020].
- American Urological Association (AUA). Recurrent Uncomplicated Urinary Tract Infections in Women: AUA/CUA/SUFU Guideline. 2019. Available at: https://www.auanet.org/guidelines/recurrent-uti. [Accessed September 9, 2020].
- MedlinePlus. Urinary tract infection. June 28, 2018. Available at: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000521.htm. [Accessed September 4, 2020].
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