It can sometimes be difficult to tell if you have a UTI (urinary tract infection) or an STD (sexually transmitted disease). UTIs can present with symptoms that are similar to those 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?
UTIs are infections of the urinary tract and are usually caused by bacteria. UTIs most often occur in the bladder (this is called cystitis) and urethra (called urethritis). These infections are typically mild but, left untreated, can spread to other parts of the urinary tract, like the kidneys (called pyelonephritis). Pyelonephritis is more serious and can cause permanent damage to the kidneys.
What is an STD?
An STD is a sexually transmitted disease that is passed through sexual intercourse and certain other forms of non-sexual contact. STDs may be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites.
What’s the difference between a UTI and an STD?
Unlike STDs, UTIs are not spread through sexual contact–they don’t spread from person to person at all–and you do not need to be sexually active to get a UTI. However, sexual activity can contribute to the risk of contracting a UTI.
STDs and UTIs can cause similar symptoms, which is one reason they’re often confused. Symptoms they share include painful or difficult urination, frequent urination and the urge to urinate. Urine may be cloudy, dark or strange-smelling. Both infections can be asymptomatic, but this is more true of STDs.
There are some STD symptoms that are not caused by UTIs:
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Bleeding or spotting between menstrual cycles
- Changes in vaginal or penile discharge
- Genital rashes, blisters or sores
- Rectal pain, discharge, or bleeding
In addition to having similar symptoms, UTIs and STDs can produce similar findings on urinalysis, which often leads to misdiagnosis. Several studies have shown that as many as half of the patients diagnosed in the emergency room with UTIs may, in fact, have STDs instead.
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 bacteria are introduced to the opening of the urethra (the part of the urinary tract that carries urine outside of the body) and make their way further up the urinary tract. One way this happens, for instance, is by wiping from back to front.
You may also have a higher risk of contracting a UTI by:
- Being female; women have a shorter urethra and the urethra is closer to the anus than it is in men, so it’s easier for bacteria to get to the bladder.
- Having a new sexual partner or having recent sexual activity, because sexual activity can cause bacteria to get pushed towards and into the urethra.
- Wearing tight-fitting clothing or underwear that isn’t breathable.
- Using a diaphragm or spermicides for birth control.
- Urinating through a catheter.
- Being pregnant.
- Having a blockage of the urinary tract may occur with kidney stones or an enlarged prostate.
- Being post-menopausal
- Having a weakened immune system, as with diabetes or AIDS.
You can reduce your risk of contracting a UTI by:
- Staying hydrated.
- Urinating frequently.
- Urinating after sexual activity. This can flush away harmful bacteria that may have been introduced into the urethra during intercourse.
- Wearing cotton underwear or underwear that has a cotton crotch.
- Cotton is breathable and can prevent moisture and bacteria from being trapped against the 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. Although most UTIs are caused by E. coli bacteria, this isn’t always the case. Other kinds of bacteria, fungi and viruses can lead to UTIs, though these are less common. In some instances, bacteria that cause STDs, like Chlamydia, can cause urinary tract infections. And because UTIs occur near sexual organs and can share symptoms with STDs, the two kinds of infections are often erroneously confused.
How to Tell if You Have a UTI or an STD
The only way to tell if you have a UTI or an STD is to get tested. Although UTIs usually cause symptoms, they sometimes don’t, and 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.
Whether you have a UTI or an STD, neither infection will go away on its own. 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 any confusion about UTIs and STDs. For more information on sexual health and STD testing, visit the Priority STD blog.