Getting intimate can cause a painful urinary tract infection — here’s what you need to know

Urinary tract infections can happen after sexual intercourse. Here are several ways to help prevent this painful condition.

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in part of the urinary system. This is the system that flushes liquid waste (urine) from the body. It includes kidneys, ureter, bladder or urethra. Most UTIs involve the lower urinary tract: bladder and urethra.

Women are more likely to develop UTIs, based on their anatomy, but men also can get UTIs. Most cases are mild. They are annoying and painful. A more serious health issue can occur, however, if the UTI spreads to the kidneys.

UTIs develop when bacteria enters the body through the urethra, the tube that empties urine from the bladder. The urinary tract is designed to keep bacteria out. Sometimes the activity from sexual intercourse pushes bacteria up into the urethra, where it may grow and cause infection.

Sometimes UTIs will clear up on their own, but sometimes they can get worse, even developing into bladder or kidney infections. This is why it’s important to treat a UTI quickly.

Can you get a UTI from sex?

The bacteria that cause UTIs live in the area around the anus. Any sexual activity — not just penetrative sexual intercourse — can push bacteria closer to and up into the urethra and cause a UTI.

While men and women can get UTIs from sex, women are more likely to develop a post-coital UTI.

“Blame it on anatomy,” said Morgan Cole, APRN with Norton Immediate Care. “Women’s urethrae tend to be shorter than men’s, so it is easier for bacteria to reach the bladder and cause infection.” 

Symptoms of a UTI tend to appear about two days after sexual activity. Early symptoms of a UTI include:

  • Needing to urinate often
  • Cloudy, red or pink urine
  • Pain or burning while urinating
  • Fever, shaking or chills
  • Pain in the upper back, side or pelvic region

There is also some evidence that a UTI can cause mood or behavioral changes.

Understanding how UTIs are caused

A common bacterium in the human body is Escherichia coli (E. coli). E. coli normally lives in the intestines and helps digest the food you eat. Most E. coli is harmless. In humans, E. coli is also found around the anus. During sexual activity, skin-to-skin contact can move the bacteria toward the vagina and urethra.

While sex can definitely trigger a UTI, other risk factors for the condition include:

Having a new sexual partner — UTIs have been called honeymoon cystitis (cystitis is another name for a bladder infection) because frequent intercourse can lead to a UTI.

  • A family history of UTI
  • Pelvic organ prolapse
  • Transitioning to menopause
  • Difficulty emptying your bladder

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Tips to prevent UTIs after sex

There are a few ways to minimize your risk of developing an UTI after sex.

  • Urinate before and after sexual activity. This can flush bacteria out of the urethra and away from the bladder.
  • Clean the genitals before and after sex — wipe from front to back.
  • Carefully consider your birth control. If you use a diaphragm or spermicide, these may kill off healthy bacteria that keep germs in check.
  • Use lubricant. Friction during sexual activity can irritate the tissues around the genitals.

Here are some other steps you can take to minimize UTIs:

  • Don’t use douches, powders or sprays on the genitals. This can wash away protective bacteria.
  • Clean yourself thoroughly after a bowel movement.
  • Consider supplements such as cranberry pills or probiotics.

“There is some evidence that cranberry juice or pills can protect against UTI,” Cole said. “Probiotic supplements can help. So can probiotic foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir.”

Can you pass a UTI to your partner?

“A UTI is not a sexually transmitted infection, or STI,” Cole said. “They do share some symptoms, but you can’t catch a UTI from someone who has this infection.”

Bacteria is transmitted between partners during sexual activity, however, which is why hygiene before and after is very important.

Can you have sex when you have a UTI?

“We generally recommend to avoid sex when one partner has a UTI,” Cole said. “More bacteria can be pushed into the urethra and then into the bladder.”

This can make it harder to clear the infection from the body. Any genital contact can spread bad bacteria into the urethra, so it’s best to wait a few days until symptoms are controlled.

Treatment for a UTI typically means a course of antibiotics. Though you may begin to feel better as soon as a day or two after starting medication, it will take up to two weeks or until you’ve completed taking antibiotics for things to get back to normal.

When to see a doctor about a UTI

If you think you have a UTI, you can try some UTI remedies at home. If symptoms get worse or if you have the following symptoms, see a doctor as soon as possible:

  • If you have fever or chills
  • If the UTI comes back after treatment
  • If You get UTIs often

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