Can You Have Sex With a UTI? Here’s Current Wisdom from Women’s Health Doctors

Sex is a significant risk factor for getting a urinary tract infection. So if you already have one...is abstaining the wisest move? Here's what doctors recommend. (Plus, the truth about cranberry juice.)

Urinary tract infections are objectively no fun. If you’ve ever experienced one, maybe you already know that UTI symptoms can include pelvic pain, burning during urination, a frequent urge to pee, and, especially for the elderly, even symptoms of vertigo and problems with cognition.

For people with female anatomy, up to half will experience a UTI during their lifetime. These infections are caused by bacteria that enter the urinary tract through the urethra. Fortunately, most UTIs can be treated with antibiotics if you catch them early.

Some doctors say that while sex itself doesn’t cause UTIs, it can increase your risk of getting one. Here’s what you need to know about the connection between sex and UTIs, and whether or not you should have sex while you have an active urinary infection.

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UTI causes

The cause of a UTI is unfriendly bacteria—usually Escherichia coli (E. coli)—entering your urinary tract through your urethra, says Christine Greves, MD, an OB/GYN with Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies in Orlando, FL.

Female anatomy presents particular susceptibility to this type of infection because the anus is so close to both the vagina and urethra. “Women also have a shorter urethra, so access to the genitorurinary system is a bit more exposed,” explains Neil Chappell, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist with Fertility Answers in Baton Rouge and clinical advisor for Frame Fertility in San Francisco.

That doesn’t mean having sex always results in a UTI, just that it could.

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So…can you have sex with a UTI?

The short answer is yes, you can have sex with a UTI—with a few caveats. “There’s no inherent reason why having intercourse while having a UTI is necessarily a major risk if you’re adequately diagnosed and treated,” says Dr. Chappell.

It’s rather unlikely you’ll give a UTI to your partner, but there are some considerations. UTI symptoms can be very similar to those of common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Only a licensed healthcare specialist can diagnose between the two. Untreated UTIs can lead to kidney infections, while untreated STDs can lead to fertility problems, among others. “Most practitioners and guidelines these days suggest fairly close monitoring of any signs of a UTI,” says Dr. Chappell.

Dr. Greves says that while sex probably won’t worsen an existing UTI, you could get a second infection that could aggravate the symptoms. “Intercourse can put pressure on your bladder, where you’re very sensitive already,” she adds.

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How to prevent a UTI

There are many precautions you can take to prevent getting UTIs, whatever the reason, in the first place:

  • Don’t mix anal and vaginal intercourse, advises Dr. Greves.
  • Avoid spermicides and douches, as they can kill off the “good” bacteria your system relies on.
  • When using the bathroom, wipe front to back, Dr. Greves stresses.
  • Drink a lot of water after sex to help flush out any bacteria.
  • Consider birth control methods other than a diaphragm, which makes it harder to empty your bladder and can cause the body to harbor bacteria.

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How to treat a UTI

If you do think you have a UTI, here are a few things you can do to manage the symptoms while you wait to see your doctor:

  • Drink a lot of water to eliminate bacteria.
  • Go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the need, so bacteria don’t have a chance to take hold.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water frequently.
  • Be mindful that cranberry juice can help in some cases, but it also usually contains sugar…which bacteria feed on to thrive. Try un-sugared cranberry tablets or supplements. (Sugar can also aggravate diabetes, which itself is a risk factor for UTIs.)
  • If you have frequent UTIs, talk with your doctor about taking a prophylactic antibiotic.

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When to see a doctor

Seek medical help any time you have symptoms of a UTI, such as a burning pain when you pee, red or pink urine (which could indicate the presence of blood) or pressure in your abdomen. Also get help if you have signs of a kidney infection such as fever, chills, nausea and vomiting or pain in your lower back.

After treatment is complete, your doctor can do tests to determine the infection is gone. This is the only way to know for sure.

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Sources
Therapeutic Advances in Urology: "An introduction to the epidemiology and burden of urinary tract infections" Pelvic Awareness Project: "Can You Have Sex With A UTI?" Henry Ford Health System: "UTIs: 9 Things You Should Know" University of California San Francisco Health: "Urinary Tract Infections" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Urinary Tract Infection" Christine Greves, MD, ob/gyn, Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies Neil Chappell, MD, ob/gyn, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, Fertility Answers, Baton Rouge, and clinical advisor, Frame Fertility, San Francisco Therapeutic Advances in Urology: "Risk factors and predisposing conditions for urinary tract infection" Merck Manual: "Bacterial Urinary Tract Infections" The Journal of Nutrition: "Cranberry Reduces the Risk of Urinary Tract Infection Recurrence in Otherwise Healthy Women: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis" Female Pelvic Medicine & Reconstructive Surgery: "American Urogynecologic Society Best-Practice Statement: Recurrent Urinary Tract Infection in Adult Women"

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.