During my senior year of high school, I decided that I was ready to have penis-in-vagina sex for the first time. Since I wasn’t on birth control, my then-boyfriend and I opted to spring for spermicidal condoms. Neither of us wanted a baby, so why wouldn’t we want some extra sperm-killing power on deck? It seemed like a no-brainer.
But a few days after we did the deed, shit got real. First came the urgent need to pee constantly, sometimes only a few minutes after I had last left the bathroom, only a few measly drops emerging most of the time. Then came the pain, hot and burning and sharp enough to make my eyes water, like I was pissing acid and/or microscopic razor blades.
Reluctant to ask my mom to take me to the doctor and thereby risk an awkward conversation about how I came to be in this wretched state, I consulted WebMD’s symptom checker. It told me that I either had a urinary tract infection or cancer, because it literally always tells you that you have cancer.
Spoiler alert: it was a UTI.
Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria (and in some rare cases fungi or viruses) manage to work their way into your body’s urinary system. Pathogens that cause UTIs enter through the urethra, the tube that carries urine from your bladder to the outside world, and work their way up into your body from there.
Most UTIs only affect the lower part of the urinary tract, which is made up of the urethra and bladder. But sometimes — particularly when left untreated — the infection can creep all the way up into the kidneys and lead to serious health consequences. Seeing a healthcare provider and getting treated with antibiotics early on can help prevent a kidney infection, not to mention bring a swift end to your burny bathroom torment.
Anyone can get a UTI, but anatomy does play a role in determining who’s most susceptible — people with vulvas are eight times more likely than people with penises to get them. This is because people with penises benefit from having comparatively longer urethras, which means that bacteria have to travel farther to invade the bladder and wreak havoc. That said, people with uncircumcised penises and people who are insertive partners (tops) during anal sex are at a slightly increased risk compared to their peers.
UTIs are frequently associated with sex because of, well, the nature of the act. Think about it — when else are bacteria getting all mushed up in your urethra in quite the same, concentrated way? Sexually active people, particularly cis women, are more likely to get them than people who aren’t having sex, and having sex more frequently and/or with more partners can also increase risk.
Another risk factor? Using spermicide, which proved to be the Achilles heel of my own sexual debut. Many studies have shown that nonoxynol-9, the active ingredient in most consumer-grade spermicides, causes irritation to the genitals that can increase the risk of contracting both UTIs and certain sexually transmitted infections. And while spermicidal jellies and creams are fairly effective forms of birth control when used correctly, spermicidal condoms have never been shown to have an advantage over standard lubricated condoms in preventing pregnancy. Balls.
Sweet Relief (Does Cranberry Juice Really Work?)
Back in 2011, still trying to avoid telling my mom about my lost virtue, I followed the advice of some alternative medicine websites and began pounding cranberry products like my life depended on it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work — studies have shown that while cranberry juice and supplements can be helpful for preventing UTIs in premenopausal women, they can’t cure an infection that’s already settled in.
Eventually, some blood showed up in my pee. I got spooked and came clean in an awkward, rainy-day car conversation later that afternoon. Thankfully, my mom was super chill about the whole thing. We took a mother-daughter trip to Planned Parenthood, where I got prescriptions for antibiotics and birth control and a paper bag full of non-spermicidal condoms. Then I’m pretty sure we went to lunch and never spoke of it again.
To ease the discomfort of UTI symptoms, over-the-counter urinary pain relief tablets can be found most pharmacies. Just be aware of two things: one, they turn your pee radioactive red-orange, so don’t be alarmed. And two, taking those drugs before you see a healthcare provider can interfere with test results, so it’s best to hold off until after your appointment.
(Don’t) Feel the Burn: UTI Prevention
Many people swear by peeing after sex to prevent UTIs, but scientific studies have failed to show that it actually works. That said, many healthcare professionals still recommend it as a good practice — and even if it doesn’t ultimately help you, it won’t hurt you, so why the heck not?
As mentioned above, some studies have shown that taking cranberry supplements daily can be helpful for preventing UTIs in premenopausal women. For postmenopausal women, vaginal estrogen supplements are sometimes useful — talk to a healthcare provider about your options.
And if, like my 18-year-old-self, you suspect that spermicide may be part of your UTI woes, you’ll probably want to consider discontinuing use of that product. If you rely on spermicide as a form of birth control, a healthcare provider can help you identify other options that will work with your body and lifestyle.
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