Medically reviewed by Dr. Emily Rymland, DNP FNP-C on June 23, 2022
When we can tell something is wrong with our bodies, we want to know what the cause is. Unfortunately, there are many issues that present similar symptoms, making it hard for us to figure out the cause and solution. Two very different conditions that can have similar symptoms are urinary tract infections (UTIs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), because both of these common infections cause symptoms in the genital region.
Discovering which type of infection is causing your symptoms is important in order to receive the right treatment and, if you have an STI, get partners treated too. While you can always visit a medical provider in person to get an official diagnosis, there are ways to tell the difference at home. This can help you take quick action, inform a medical provider of the most likely option and ensure that you get the best treatment as fast as you can.
In this blog, we’ll break down the differences between UTIs and STIs. We’ll also give you tips to figure out which one you might be dealing with. Finally, we’ll help you understand what steps you should take next in either scenario.
What is a UTI?
A urinary tract infection, often abbreviated as UTI, is a common infection. The urinary system includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and the urethra. When bacteria gets caught in any of these organs, it can lead to infection. Most commonly, a UTI involves the bladder or urethra. The infection can be painful and uncomfortable for anyone who has it.
The most common cause of UTIs is sexual activity. During sexual activity, bacteria can spread from the genitals, hands, or mouths and get into the urinary system. It can also spread from toys during intimate time alone. Practicing good hygiene and urinating after sexual activity can help to reduce the risk of a UTI.
Women are more likely to get a UTI than men due to a few different reasons. The first is that the urethra is shorter in women than in men. That means that bacteria has less distance to travel in order to cause a problem. In addition, there is close proximity between the urethra and the anus in women, so without good bathroom hygiene, fecal matter and bacteria can travel up the urethra and cause a UTI.
Another reason why women are more likely to get a UTI is menopause. Declining production of estrogen changes the tissues of the urinary tract. This makes it easier for bacteria to get caught in the tract and cause an issue. Certain types of birth control like spermicides and condoms can also lead to UTIs. However, as we’ll discuss later, that doesn’t mean you should stop using these methods.
What is an STI?
STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, previously referred to as STDs or sexually transmitted diseases. The health community no longer refers to such infections as “diseases” because they are so common and are curable or manageable with treatment. An STI is a general term for bacteria, viruses, or parasites that are transmitted during sexual activity. They can pass from person to person in blood, semen, or other bodily fluids. They can also occasionally pass through these fluids in a non-sexual environment, such as from mother to child.
Unlike a UTI, there might not be immediate symptoms of an STI. Certain infections can have no clear symptoms and others remain dormant. Because of this, using prevention tools like condoms can help stop the spread of STIs.
There are many different types of infections categorized under the term STI. Bacterial infections like gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia are among the most common. Other STIs are caused by viruses, including HPV, genital/oral herpes, and HIV. Other STIs infections like trichomoniasis are caused by microscopic parasites.
Possible STI exposure is simply part of having sex, but you can reduce your risk of infection. One of the most effective ways to protect yourself from STIs is to use a condom. Condoms are most effective at preventing transmission of STIs like HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. They are less effective at preventing certain STIs such as HPV and herpes, which are spread by skin to skin contact.
It’s recommended that sexually active people get tested for STIs at least once a year, or more often if you have sex with new partners. Because many STIs don’t have immediate or noticeable symptoms, this helps to keep you informed. You can also get vaccinated for certain STIs, including HPV and hepatitis. To protect yourself from HIV, you can take the medication pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. PrEP provides 99% protection for those who are at a high risk of HIV infection.
It’s also important to communicate clearly with any sexual partners about safe sex. Letting each other know the risks can also help reduce the spread of STIs.
Common Symptoms Between UTIs and STIs
As mentioned earlier, it can be hard to tell whether you have a UTI or STI. Because both types of infection can occur as a result of sex, people can get confused. There are also some similar symptoms between the two types of infection. While not all STIs have noticeable symptoms, the symptoms that might come up are close to those in UTIs. Some of those common symptoms include:
- Painful urination
- Bad smelling urine
- Cloudy, dark, or bloody urine
- Pain in the pelvic region
It’s also important to note that it is possible to have both a UTI and an STI at the same time. However, it’s crucial to know what type of infection you have, whether it’s one or the other or both. The types of medications that a doctor will prescribe are wildly different between UTIs and specific types of STIs. And the longer either infection goes untreated, the more severe the consequences can be.
Signs that Point to a UTI
While you can get a UTI from sexual activity, there are also many other potential causes. So if you are not sexually active then most likely you have a UTI. However, some STIs can take many years for symptoms to develop, so get tested for STIs if you haven’t lately. There are also some signs that more clearly indicate a UTI instead of an STD. Those symptoms might include:
- A burning sensation while urinating
- Urgent need to urinate
- Difficulty urinating
- No abnormal discharge from the genitals
- Mild pain in the lower abdomen
It’s also important to note that some symptoms like bloody urine or frequent urination are more common in UTIs. However, because these symptoms can occasionally appear in STIs, you’ll still want to consider that option.
Signs that Point to an STI
The first sign that indicates you might have an STI is if you are sexually active and aren’t certain of a partner’s status. It’s important to catch STIs as early as possible. The longer that they go untreated, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to treat them. Be on the lookout for symptoms like:
- Vaginal or urethral discharge
- Painful intercourse
- Bleeding in between periods
- Vaginal itching with discharge
- Anal discharge
- Sore throat associated with sexual activity
- Burning with urination
- Rectal pain or itching
- Lesion on genitals or mouth
- Rash on body that also include soles of feet and palms of hands
These symptoms might be indicators that you have an STI and you should get comprehensive STI testing as soon as possible. If your symptoms go away, don’t assume you are in the clear — many STI symptoms come and go, and some STIs have symptoms early in the infection but then go silent. But an STI without symptoms can still damage your health and infect sexual partners.
What Steps to Take Next
Because both UTIs and STIs commonly occur after sexual activity, many people are uncertain of which they have. Instead of trying to decipher it yourself, reach out to a medical provider for an STI test. Don’t wait, because the longer an STI goes unchecked, the worse the consequences can be. If you do test positive, you should inform your previous sexual partners of the diagnosis so they can get checked. If you believe you have a UTI, keep hydrating. Drinking plenty of water will help you flush out your system and clear out the infection. You should also urinate as frequently as you need and avoid holding it in at all costs. If your symptoms persist, reach out to a doctor. They can prescribe antibiotics that can help you overcome the UTI.
Knowing whether you have an STI or UTI can be tricky. However, they do have different symptoms. When you know which one you have, you can take the right steps for treatment.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.