It burns, it stings and you keep having to run to the loo.
It’s a urinary tract infection (UTI). Cloudy, bloody and/or potent-smelling pee, pelvic pain and the frequent urge to urinate despite each attempt bringing just a trickle are all part of the unpleasantness. Going through this once is bad enough but for some women, urinary tract infections are a frequent occurrence, especially not long after sex. What’s that about? And what can you do to reduce your chances of getting yet another UTI?
Sex and your urinary system
Up to 20% of women in the UK experience UTI symptoms at some point in their life; far more than men. Why? Because of female anatomy and biology.
The anatomy part
The tube that runs down from your bladder to allow you to pass urine is called the urethra. It’s much shorter in women than in men, which makes it easier for bacteria that cause UTIs to get into your body. When they take control and infect your urethra, you get urethritis. When they travel up to infect your bladder, you get cystitis. Both are classed as UTIs.
The biology part
This is down to menopause. Hormonal changes affect the pH of your vagina, making it a more appealing home for bacteria that cause UTIs. Given the proximity of the entrance of your vagina and your urethra, these vaginal bacteria can sometimes infect your urinary system.
The sex part
Speaking of proximity, that brings us onto the connection between sex and UTIs. First off, you aren’t alone — around 80% of pre-menopausal women with a UTI have had sex in the preceding 24 hours. When you have sex, bacteria in your vagina can get shifted about and more easily make the short trip to your urethra.
Antibiotics are the go-to treatment for cystitis and urethritis. They’re definitely effective but if you frequently get urinary tract infections, repeat prescriptions can start to wreak havoc on your gastric system and skin, with diarrhoea, stomach upsets and rashes being common side effects. So what can you do?
You’re not out of options
You can take steps to reduce your chances of getting cystitis or urethritis. Natural, plant-based remedies, such as St John’s Wort-infused teas, are making a comeback with scientists now investigating their healing properties. While they continue to dig deeper into these alternative medicines, here are 5 proven tips to consider:
1) Take probiotics
Probiotics are designed to restore a healthy balance of bacteria in your body, including your vagina and urinary system. These good bacteria can be found naturally in yoghurt and more exotic foods such as miso, kefir, tempeh, kombucha and kimchi. If working these foods into your diet is a challenge, there are also supplements available; look out for ones that contain lactobacillus.
2) Stay hydrated and pee frequently
An easy way to flush harmful bacteria out of your urinary system is to pee regularly, around 6–8 times a day. That’s why it is important to stay hydrated. Dehydration allows harmful bacteria to stay in your urinary system for longer, giving them the chance to multiply and cause problems.
3) Don’t use deodorant sprays, douches or powders down there
These products can irritate your genital area, specifically your urethra, and that makes it easier for UTIs to take hold.
4) Try different forms of contraception
The use of spermicide-coated condoms and diaphragms during sex are known to increase the risk of urinary tract infections, including cystitis, in women.
5) Try vaginal hormonal cream
If you’re menopausal or post-menopausal, vaginal hormonal cream is clinically proven to reduce your risk of urinary tract infections, whether you’re having regular sex or not. It helps maintain the balance of good bacteria in your vagina so those harmful ones don’t take hold and spread.
Try out these tips and hopefully you won’t be filling so many repeat prescriptions for antibiotics. However, it’s still important to see your GP if you’re having recurrent UTIs to rule out any underlying health issues.
Remember, there are thousands of women in the UK in the same boat as you. Getting urinary tract infections after sex isn’t weird, it isn’t shameful, it’s biology and there is lots you can do to help your body achieve a healthy balance again.