Urinary tract infections often come with a lot of burning questions (pun intended) including: Can you have sex with a UTI? And what about having sex with a UTI while you’re on antibiotics?
One of the only things I hate more than that telltale burning urge to pee is when my UTI takes it a step further and stymies my sex life. I doubt I’m the first woman to consider whether it’s OK to have sex while my UTI symptoms are fading, but I’m technically still treating the infection. In case you, like me, have considered having sex with a UTI, here’s a crash course in everything you need to know.
Before knowing if you can have sex with a UTI, you need to understand what a UTI is.
A UTI is an infection in any part of your urinary tract. Your urinary tract includes your kidneys, ureters (tubes that connect your kidneys to your bladder), bladder, and urethra (the tube through which you pee), according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
A UTI can crop up in any of these places, though they typically happen when bacteria from your gastrointestinal tract migrates from your anus to your bladder (this is known as cystitis) or urethra (urethritis), according to the Mayo Clinic.
What are the symptoms of a UTI?
UTIs don’t always come with symptoms, but more often than not they do. Here are some of the most common symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- A need to pee frequently
- Burning pee
- Peeing often but only in small amounts
- Pee that has a cloudy appearance
- Pee that looks red, bright pink, or brown
- Pee that has a strong odor
- Pain in your pelvic region, especially toward the middle
That said, symptoms can vary depending on the area infected; an infection in your urethra/ureters can cause burning with urination accompanied by abnormal discharge and cloudy pee. One in your bladder can cause pelvic pressure, pain in your lower abdomen, frequent, painful urination, and blood in your pee. And if the infection spreads to your kidneys, you can experience upper back and side pain, a high fever, shaking and chills, nausea, and vomiting.
What causes a UTI?
One word for you: Bacteria. UTIs happen when bacteria travel to some part of your urinary tract via your urethra, according to the Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, having a vagina makes you more likely to get a UTI.
This is because of two purely anatomical reasons: The urethra and anus are close together, and the urethral opening is shorter in vaginas than it is in penises. When you have sex or make the dreadful (yet easy) mistake of wiping back-to-front, bacteria doesn’t have far to go in order to cause trouble in your urinary system. Getting a sexually transmitted infection such as herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and mycoplasma can also allow bacteria to get into your urethra and cause urethritis, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But other risk factors, like menopause, also boost the prevalence of UTIs in people with vaginas. Menopause-related declines in estrogen can promote these infections, according to the Mayo Clinic. Having poorly-controlled diabetes or other diseases that weaken your immune system can also increase your risk of getting UTIs.
UTIs are pretty common, so it’s good to have information about them in your (mental) back pocket. Estimates from the American Urological Association and NIDDK suggest that 40 to 60 percent of people with vaginas will get a UTI at some point. Unfortunately, their prevalence doesn’t make them any less painful, frustrating, or potentially harmful to your health.
One more thing before we get to the sex stuff: You should always see a medical professional if you think you have a UTI.
UTIs don’t just go away on their own. In fact, bacteria can travel from your lower urinary tract to your kidneys, where it can cause permanent damage or sepsis, a potentially life-threatening infection. You can’t just hope for the burning and pain to abate—you need to see a doctor.
Once you’ve visited your gynecologist and they’ve confirmed via testing that you have a UTI, much of their treatment plan will depend on the type of bacteria causing the infection and whether your infection is “uncomplicated” or “complicated.”
Having an uncomplicated UTI basically means it’s a straightforward infection that hasn’t compromised your kidneys, isn’t recurrent (which means you don’t get two or more in a six-month period or four or more within a year), and doesn’t present any other complex factors that can make it harder to treat, according to the Mayo Clinic. In that case, your doctor will prescribe an oral antibiotic, generally for around one to three days, per the Mayo Clinic. Just a few days of antibiotic treatment should clear this kind of infection, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., clinical professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine, tells SELF.
If you get recurrent or otherwise complicated UTIs, your ob/gyn might recommend a different course of care depending on your specific situation. This might include low-dose antibiotics for six months or more or a single-dose antibiotic you can take after you have sex, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And whether or not you get UTIs a lot, if your infection seems to have spread to your kidneys, you may need to see a specialist or go to the hospital, where they can administer strong enough antibiotics to beat the illness.
OK, so what if you’ve started treatment, your symptoms have started to recede, and you’re itching to have sex? Can you have sex with a UTI?
“If you have an infection and it’s being treated, you don’t need to abstain [from intercourse] unless you want to,” Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. The bacteria has already gotten where it shouldn’t, the infection has already started, and you’re already on antibiotics to get that sh*t cleared up, so generally, you’re good to go. There are a few things to keep in mind, though.
Obviously, your symptoms actually need to be gone in order to make this a good idea, otherwise sexual activity could just make the area more irritated. “If you have UTI symptoms, you’re probably not going to even want to have sex,” Jacques Moritz, an ob/gyn at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, tells SELF. Feeling like you need to sprint to the nearest toilet every other second isn’t exactly turn-on material. (Neither is pelvic pain. Same goes for an on-fire urinary tract. You get the idea.)
The other tricky thing is that even if your symptoms are gone, the infection might not be. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment of UTI-liberation, Dr. Minkin says. This is why it’s always essential to finish the entire course of prescribed medication. It will help make sure you actually kick the infection, and if you’re deciding to go ahead with sex, it also makes it less likely that you’ll get another UTI.
Yup, you read that right: Getting a second UTI while still recovering from the first UTI is technically possible, but Dr. Minkin says being on medication for your current UTI lowers the odds drastically. “If you’ve got an antibiotic around, it’s probably going to take care of any potential organisms that might be thinking of invading,” Dr. Minkin says.
When antibiotics destroy UTI bacteria, they also way decrease your chances of passing the infection along to your sexual partner. In fact, the odds of this are basically nil even if you aren’t taking antibiotics, Maureen Whelihan, M.D., a Florida-based gynecologist, tells SELF.
This is because UTI bacteria is in your urinary tract, an entirely separate place from where penetration happens. Although this bacteria has traveled from elsewhere into your urethra and potentially even higher, it’s not going to travel back down to your vagina and infect your partner, Dr. Minkin says. UTIs are what’s known as “ascending infections,” meaning the bacteria maintains an upward trajectory for as long as it can until antibiotics stamp out the infection.
One last thing: You probably don’t need to worry about your UTI antibiotics interfering with your birth control. While it’s true that some antibiotics like rifampin (for treating tuberculosis) and griseofulvin (for treating fungal infections) have been shown to decrease the efficacy of hormonal contraception, there’s no solid scientific evidence that common UTI drugs will do the same. That said, it’s not a bad idea to ask your doctor or pharmacist about the specific antibiotic you’re prescribed to see if it has any contraindications with your chosen birth control method. And, if you’re really concerned, you can either use a backup method of birth control or postpone sex altogether.
So, yeah, you can go ahead and have sex with a UTI while on antibiotics if you’re following your prescribed UTI treatment course and symptoms have hightailed it out of your body. But if you’re still unsure, you can always check in with your doctor for peace of mind.
And don’t forget: there are things you can do to prevent getting a UTI in the future.
Once you’ve gotten your first UTI, you’ll probably want to avoid them like the plague in the future. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of UTIs, according to the Mayo Clinic:
- Stay hydrated: Drinking lots of liquids—especially water—can help stave off UTIs. The reason: You’ll have to pee more often, which better ensures bacteria will be flushed from your urinary tract.
- Wipe carefully: Make sure you’re wiping from front to back. Doing so will keep bacteria from your anal region from entering your vagina and urethra.
- Pee after sex: This will help flush out any bacteria that may have set up shop around your urethra. Also: drinking a full glass of water can help clear out bacteria.
- Don’t use anything scented down there: Products that have a fragrance—including tampons and douches, the latter of which you don’t need, btw—can irritate your genitals and urethra.
- Maybe switch up your birth control method: Certain birth control methods may make you more likely to get a UTI, like diaphragms or spermicide-treated condoms.