When you’re experiencing a burning sensation in your genital area, it can be tricky to figure out the source alone. The good news is that you can stop the guessing, so you don’t waste any more money on over-the-counter products that don’t actually address the issue.
We’ve got all the information you need to help you tell the difference between a yeast infection and a UTI, so you can handle your symptoms the right way.
What Is a Yeast Infection?
You can get a yeast infection anywhere on your skin, but they most commonly occur in the vaginal area. Although it may sound strange, our bodies have an amazing microbiota of millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
Usually, the body can keep its growth in check and co-exist peacefully. However, when something causes the balance to be off, certain parts of that microbiota can start to cause issues.
One specific type of fungus, a yeast known as Candida albicans, is a particular troublemaker. When there is too much Candida fungus present, it can cause an infection called vaginal candidiasis (what we usually just call a yeast infection).
What Is a UTI?
Is that same microbiota responsible for UTIs? Yes and no!
UTIs, short for urinary tract infections, happen when bacteria goes where it doesn’t belong — in this case, the urethra (the hole you pee out of). Unlike yeast infections, where the culprit is a specific type of fungus, UTIs are triggered by a massive list of different bacteria.
While this can be naturally present on the skin, it can also be bacteria introduced from outside locations (like the rectum). However, the result is the same; an overgrowth of bacteria that causes an infection of the urinary tract.
Who Gets Yeast Infections and UTIs?
The answer is everyone! You are susceptible to developing yeast or urinary tract infections if you have skin and a urinary system. However, risk factors like a lowered immune system, untreated diabetes, or inappropriate hygiene practices (i.e., wiping back to front instead of front to back after a bowel movement) are more likely to deal with frequent or recurrent issues.
But whether that will be a yeast infection vs. UTI depends on their specific situation.
How Do You Know if You Have a Yeast Infection or a UTI?
So how do you tell the two apart? While there is some overlap, there are also unique symptoms to look for that can help you tell the difference.
The first place to start is by looking at potential causes. Yeast infections are yeast, and UTIs are bacteria, but you’re not going to be able to get out a microscope and check yourself.
The main thing to focus on is what changed in the days leading up to your symptoms. If you’ve recently had more sex than usual, it’s far more likely that you’re dealing with a UTI.
If you’ve been taking an antibiotic, are on hormonal birth control, or frequently use douches or vaginal sprays, it’s probably a yeast infection.
If you stop and focus on your symptoms, a few can help lean you one way or the other.
The biggest, most recognizable symptom to make the yeast infection vs. UTI distinction is vaginal discharge. Specifically, if you notice a thick, white, “cottage cheese-like” discharge, it is a trademark vaginal yeast infection.
Vulva itchiness and swelling are also telltale symptoms of yeast infections. Trust us — this won’t be your normal itch.
On the other hand, if your main symptoms are blood in the urine, painful urination, needing to pee more urgently or frequently, an odd smell when you urinate, tenderness in your lower back or sides, or a fever, you’re probably dealing with a UTI.
There’s no “standard” regarding how long you can expect either of these infections to last. The duration will depend on how nasty the infection is and what type of treatment you do for it. Expect anywhere from a few days to several weeks.
While self-diagnosis can help guide you in a general direction, your healthcare provider must make an official diagnosis of either infection. They’re also the only ones who can prescribe the most effective treatment options. Diagnosis often involves a urine sample and a pelvic exam.
When Should I See a Doctor for a Yeast Infection or UTI?
If you’ve tried over-the-counter treatments and home remedies and nothing seems to be helping (or makes the symptoms worse), it’s time to see your doctor. They have various treatment options available to help knock out that infection in no time, plus they’ll give you peace of mind that it’s being handled appropriately.
Treatment for a Yeast Infection
An overgrowth of fungus causes yeast infections, so treating them usually includes prescription antifungal medications. The exact type comes down to preference, as many come as creams and suppositories. There is also an oral pill called fluconazole (brand name Diflucan) that you can get from your doctor.
Treatment for a UTI
Because bacteria cause UTIs, you’ll need an antibiotic to treat one effectively. UTI treatment will depend on the specific type of bacteria causing the infection, which will show on a urine culture test. E. coli is a frequent offender, but other bacteria strains require different types of antibiotic treatment.
Your doctor may also prescribe different antibiotics depending on the type of infection. Infections that start in the urinary tract can easily become bladder infections or kidney infections, which might require stronger antibiotics.
How Can I Prevent a Yeast Infection or a UTI?
Prevention is vital, and there are absolutely ways to reduce your risk of developing a yeast infection or UTI.
Your diet is one of the most critical factors in your overall vaginal health and wellness. A healthy and balanced diet can keep you healthy in nearly every way, including preventing yeast infections and UTIs.
Yeast thrives on sugar. If you’ve ever made bread, you’ve seen this in action. Reducing the amount of processed food in your diet is one way to stop “feeding” the yeast, reducing the likelihood of it growing unchecked.
With UTIs, drink plenty of water. Substituting cranberry juice for bladder irritants like caffeinated teas and sodas can also help with prevention. Cranberry juice contains ingredients that can help prevent bacteria from clinging to the bladder's walls.
Probiotics, like certain Lactobacillus strains, can also help your body’s natural defenses against both infections. Ask your doctor for more specific medical advice.
Stress is no fun, but did you know it can also tank your immune system? A lowered immune system puts you at risk for many infections, so reducing your stress level can help you stay healthier (mentally and physically!).
Avoid Irritating Products
Prevention should also include looking at the products you put on — and in — your body. Scented tampons, spermicides, and douches are one of the main offenders, as they can significantly affect your body’s pH.
Reusable diaphragms and menstrual cups can also upset your vaginal balance if they aren’t cleaned properly between uses. Choose products that are safe for your body and specifically designed for vaginal use, like our Awaken Wellness Tonic bundle.
Avoid anything with added fragrance or dyes, which we stay away from because they can irritate the vagina. Using lube is also an excellent prevention technique, as it can help reduce potential friction and irritation (if you choose a vagina-friendly product, that is).
Pee, Pee, and (More) Pee
Listen, we understand what’s it like to feel like you don’t have time to pee. We’ve all danced through a meeting or a school recital, hoping to make it a few more minutes.
Sometimes it can’t be helped, but when you have the option, make sure you’re listening to your body’s signals and going to the bathroom when you get the urge. Peeing before and after sex is another great way to prevent UTIs — if not the way.
The Bottom Line
We get it if you’re stressed about telling the difference between yeast infections and UTIs. You’re not alone. Having anything wrong downstairs can be panic-inducing, but knowing what to look for can help you get symptoms under control in no time.
Pour yourself a glass of wine (or decaf tea), draw yourself a bath, and try to relax. Infections happen to everyone, but now you’re armed with everything you need to know how to handle them.
Vaginal Candidiasis | Fungal Diseases | CDC
Urinary Tract Infection | Antibiotic Use | CDC
Cranberries and lower urinary tract infection prevention | PMC
Stress and the immune system | WHO
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