A young, bespectacled woman, wondering how to tell if you have a UTI or an STD.

How to Tell if You Have a UTI or an STD

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if you have a UTI or an STD. Sometimes, UTIs can present with symptoms that are similar to some symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, and vice versa. In this blog, we’ll discuss the differences between the two infections and how you can tell the difference.

What is a UTI?

First, let’s break down what a UTI is. A UTI, or urinary tract infection, is an infection caused by bacteria that populates any of the four parts of the urinary tract: the urethra, bladder, ureter or kidneys. Depending on the part of the urinary tract that is infected, UTIs are sometimes referred to in diagnoses as a bladder infection (cystitis) or urethra infection (urethritis).

UTIs most often occur in the bladder. These infections are typically mild, but if left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the urinary tract. A very serious infection (pyelonephritis) occurs if the infection reaches the kidneys. This infection is very serious and can cause permanent damage to the kidneys.

What is an STD?

An STD is a sexually transmitted disease or infection (referred to as an STI) that is most commonly passed through sexual intercourse and certain other forms of non-sexual contact. STD symptoms can sometimes present in ways similar to a UTI, which is one reason why the two can sometimes be conflated.

What’s the difference between a UTI and an STD?

Unlike STDs, UTIs are not transmissible through either sexual or non-sexual contact. However, certain situations in sexual contexts can contribute to the risk of contracting a UTI, such as not urinating after sexual activity.

As we mentioned, STDs and UTIs can share common symptoms, which is one reason they’re often confused. Those symptoms can including painful or difficult urination, frequent urination or the urge to urinate, as well as urine that is cloudy, dark or has a strange smell. STDs are more often asymptomatic when compared to UTIs, but both infections can be asymptomatic.

Here are a few common STD symptoms that are not associated with UTIs:

  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding or spotting between menstrual cycles
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Genital rashes, blisters or sores

According to the American Society for Microbiology, urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted infections are frequently misdiagnosed, specifically in emergency room situations. In a study, researchers found that 64% of patients with an STI that was not diagnosed were diagnosed as having a UTI instead. This is in part because urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted infections can result in similar findings from urinalysis, which often leads to misdiagnosis.

What causes a UTI?

Most UTIs are caused by E. coli bacteria. E. coli is a harmless microorganism when present in your intestines, colon and around the anus, but if it is introduced to the urinary tract, infection occurs. Most UTIs begin when E. coli is introduced to the opening of the urethra (the part of the urinary tract that carries urine outside of the body) and makes its way further up the urinary tract.

Wiping from back to front after a bowel movement can introduce E. coli from the anus to the vaginal opening, where it can enter the urethra. UTIs can also be caused by bacterial growth in the bladder, which usually results from waiting too long to pee or long periods of immobility, such as being bedridden. Using a diaphragm or spermicides for birth control can spread bacteria, increasing the probability of a UTI.

In addition to these instances, the following behaviors or afflictions can increase your risk of contracting a UTI:
Wearing tight-fitting clothing or underwear that isn’t breathable
Urinating through a catheter
Anal sex acts
Diarrhea
Swimming in unsanitary water
Menopause
Kidney stones or other blockages of the urinary tract

Additionally, you can reduce your risk of contracting a UTI by:
Urinating after sexual activity. This can help flush away harmful bacteria that may have been introduced to the urethra during intercourse.
Wearing cotton underwear or underwear that has a cotton crotch. Cotton is breathable and moisture-wicking, preventing moisture and bacteria from being trapped against the vagina or opening of the urethra.
Taking showers instead of baths. Sitting in bathwater can allow bath products or dirty water to enter the urinary tract.

Can an STD cause a UTI?

In short: yes, but rarely. Because these infections occur near sexual organs and can share symptoms, the two kinds of infections are often erroneously linked together, but they are not the same thing, and one infection typically does not cause the other.

As we mentioned above, most UTIs are caused by E. coli bacteria. However, not every UTI is caused by E. coli. Other kinds of bacteria and fungi can lead to UTIs, though these cases are less common. Viral infections of the urinary tract are also uncommon. In some instances, bacteria that would cause an STD can cause urinary tract infections. Chlamydia can cause an infection of the urinary tract, and the symptoms of a UTI caused by chlamydia can differ from typical UTIs.

How to Tell if You Have a UTI or an STD

While you might be able to differentiate between a UTI and an STD by the symptoms you’re experiencing, the only way to tell if you have a UTI or an STD is to get tested. While UTIs are not usually asymptomatic, they occasionally can be, while STDs are frequently asymptomatic. Whenever you experience symptoms of any kind, the best thing you can do is to get tested as soon as possible.

Treatment

Whether you have a UTI or an STD, neither infection will go away on its own. In some cases, depending on what STD you have, treatment may not be available. However, UTIs and most STDs can be treated with medication. After you get tested, either the testing provider or your doctor should be able to provide you with a course of medication to treat your infection, if necessary.

Hopefully, this blog has helped clear up some common misconceptions or miscommunications about UTIs and STDs. For more information on sexual health and STD testing, visit the Priority STD blog.