There are two common culprits when it comes to vaginal discomfort: a urinary tract infection and yeast infection. And the two have some similarities—like itching, a burning sensation when urinating, and an increased urge to go to the bathroom—occassionally making it difficult to discern if you have a UTI vs. yeast infection. But, there are a few key differences in symptoms, causes, and treatments.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re worried you might have a UTI or a yeast infection and how to get relief.
UTI vs. yeast infections
“UTIs are bacterial infections that can occur anywhere in the urinary tract system,” explains Staci Tanouyre. M.D., F.A.C.O.G., obstetrician-gynecologist. “This differs from genital yeast infections where there is an overgrowth of the fungus Candida on the vulva and vagina.” While Dr. Tanouye admits that some symptoms overlap, UTIs cause more urinary-related symptoms and can also cause pelvic or abdominal cramping. Left untreated, they can even lead to fever, chills, or low back pain if the infection becomes more severe.
Causes of UTIs and yeast infections
According to Dr. Tanouye, UTIs are an infection in part of the urinary system caused by bacteria like E. Coli from the GI tract. “UTIs are very common and can range from mild to severe,” she says, adding that while they are most common with women, anyone can experience them.
The urinary tract covers a lot of ground, explains Jill Purdie, M.D., OB/GYN, and medical director at Northside Women’s Specialists, part of Pediatrix Medical Group, who adds that both the kidneys and bladder are included under this umbrella. “Mostly commonly when a person says they have a UTI, they are referring to a bladder infection,” she says. Some common culprits can be wiping from back to front after using the restroom or failing to urinate following sex.
As for yeast infections, Dr. Tanouye says these are caused by an overgrowth of the fungus Candida, most commonly Candida Albicans. “It is most commonly found in warm, moist areas such as the mouth, throat, vulva, vagina, or skin folds like under the breasts,” she says, adding that you may be at an increased risk if you have a weakened immune system, certain types of diabetes (or take some types of diabetes medications), while pregnant, or if you’re using antibiotics.
Unfortunately, yeast infections are a common problem among women. “It is estimated that as many as 70% of women will have one at some point in their life,” according to Dr. Purdie, who points to things like increased sugar levels, a lowered immune system, and fluctuating estrogen levels as potential risk factors.
Symptoms of UTIs and yeast infections
If you’ve ever experienced a UTI then you know its calling card usually includes a variety of uncomfortable problems. “The most common UTI symptoms include painful or burning urination, needing to urinate frequently and urgently, pain in the abdomen or lower back, and cloudy, strong-smelling, or bloody urine,” says Dr. Tanouye.
Yeast infections, on the other hand, tend to be more itchy than painful. Dr. Tanouye says you may experience itching, burning, redness, or soreness in the affected area.
“Many women also have a thick, white, and clumpy discharge,” adds Dr. Purdie.
Treating UTIs and yeast infections
Both types of infections require medical treatment, and Dr. Tanouye says you’ll need antibiotics to treat your UTI. “Severe complications may occur if left untreated,” she adds, noting that it’s important to talk to a medical professional if you think you’re suffering from one.
Dr. Perdie adds that there are some OTC options (like AZO) that can help manage symptoms—but they won’t fix the problem. “This medication numbs the bladder and makes the person feel better, but it does not treat the infection,” she advises before adding that it can also have the surprising side effect of turning your urine bright orange.
As for yeast infections, you can get OTC relief in some cases, but Dr. Purdie says that they don’t always work. “People may also see their gynecologist to get more accurate testing to make sure they actually have a yeast infection and to get prescription anti-fungal medications for treatment.”
Just be forewarned, your UTI treatment could actually bring about a yeast infection, even if you didn’t have one from the start. “In fact, treatment of UTIs with longer antibiotic courses can trigger an overgrowth of yeast, leading to a yeast infection,” explains Dr. Tanouye.
Preventing UTIs and yeast infections
The best cure is prevention, but unfortunately, sometimes these infections occur despite our best efforts—those who are postmenopausal or who use a catheter may be at increased risk. Still, Dr. Tanouye says you can reduce your chances of getting a UTI by taking a few proactive steps:
Drink plenty of water
Wear cotton underwear
Avoid scented products in the genital area
If you want to lower your chances of getting a yeast infection, Dr. Tanouye says you should consider some lifestyle changes like:
Maintaining good hygiene
Avoiding tight-fitting clothing
Changing out of wet clothing
Avoiding scented products in the genital area
Skipping bubble baths and douches
When to see a doctor
While there are OTC products that claim they can help identify whatever is causing your discomfort, Dr. Purdie says you should use them with caution. “The most accurate way to diagnose a UTI or a yeast infection is to see your physician for a culture,” she says adding that the urine test strips won’t accurately diagnose UTIs but may give you info about how likely it is that you could be suffering from one.
“The best marker is a positive nitrite, which is an indicator of bacteria,” she says, adding that there are no over-the-counter tests that will detect yeast. “There are PH test strips available that may indicate an increased risk of vaginal infection, but they are unable to narrow down what may be causing the infection.”
If you’re suffering from these common symptoms and wondering if a UTI or yeast infection is to blame, both doctors suggest you make a trip to your doctor to get a proper diagnosis. Failing to do so could lead to further complications, especially if you try to incorrectly treat the wrong problem!
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