Yeast Infection vs. UTI: How to Tell the Difference
Yeast infections happen to a whopping 75% of women, and more than half of all women get at least one UTI in their life, according to the Office on Women's Health. (And yes, people with penises also deal with these conditions sometimes, although they're much less common.)
But even though the two conditions are often lumped together, they're decidedly distinct infections that have their own unique sets of symptoms and treatments. Understanding how to tell the difference between a yeast infection versus UTI can help you know what you're dealing with and ultimately put you on the fast track to relief.
Not sure which one you might have? Keep reading to learn more about yeast infections vs. UTIs, including symptoms, causes, and treatments.
Yeast infection vs. UTI: What are they?
Yeast infections and UTIs can both affect you down there, but that's just about where the similarities between the two conditions end.
"They really are quite different, although you can have both at the same time," Felice Gersh, MD, ob-gyn, founder, and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in California, and author of PCOS SOS Fertility Fast Track, tells Health.
A yeast infection involves an overgrowth of fungus—usually it's one called Candida. This fungus naturally hangs out on your skin and inside moist spots of the body (including your vagina, but also your mouth, throat, and gut) without harming your health.
The tides can turn on that peaceful existence when something (like a new medication you're taking) throws off the balance of the fungus and it starts growing out of control. That Candida overgrowth results in a yeast infection and all the funky symptoms that go along with it.
UTIs, on the other hand, can be blamed on something else entirely: bacteria. More specifically, a strain called Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is responsible for up to 90% of all UTIs, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Like the Candida yeast that lives on our bodies, E. coli is usually harmless when it's in its usual place: the anus. But it becomes problematic if it makes the short journey from a woman's bum to her urethra and travels through the urinary tract, says the Office of Women's Health. You get a UTI when the bacteria find a place to create a colony (usually it's in your bladder) and multiply out of control.
When the colony is left untreated and continues to grow, the UTI could eventually reach your kidneys and start to do major damage, so it's important to address these annoying infections ASAP.
Symptoms of yeast infection vs. UTI
Only a doctor can tell you for sure whether you've got a yeast infection or UTI (or something else entirely). But each condition has its own distinctive set of symptoms, which could give you clues about which type of infection you might have.
Karyn Eilber, MD, a urologist who teaches at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and founder/CEO of lubricant-maker Glissant, explains that if your symptoms are primarily related to urination, you probably have a UTI. That includes UTI symptoms like:
- feeling like you have to pee all the time
- an urgent need to urinate
- a burning sensation when you pee
- pee that's reddish, pinkish, or cloudy
When you've got a yeast infection, you generally experience vaginal irritation all the time—not just when you have to urinate, Dr. Eilber tells Health. The Mayo Clinic says symptoms of a yeast infection include things like:
- vaginal discharge that's thick and white, almost like cottage cheese
- vulva and vagina feel itchy and irritated
- vulva is swollen and red
- burning sensation, especially when you pee or have sex
- vagina is sore
- vaginal rash
- watery vaginal discharge
If your main symptom is burning sensation when you pee, it might be tricky for you to figure out if it's a yeast infection versus a UTI.
"It's possible that when a woman who has a yeast infection urinates, the outside skin will burn, and that's where sometimes the confusion can come in with a UTI," says Dr. Gersh.
But chances are good that you'll also experience other symptoms that will help you narrow down the cause.
Regardless, it's always a good idea to get checked out by a doctor, so they can help you find the right treatment for either infection.
Causes of yeast infection vs. UTI
OK, so an overgrowth of fungus causes yeast infections, and an unwelcome colony of bacteria in the urinary tract causes UTIs. But what makes those things happen?
- taking antibiotics
- using high-dose estrogen birth control
- being on estrogen hormone therapy
- being pregnant
- having compromised immunity (due to, say, HIV or taking steroids)
- having unmanaged diabetes
These factors can create an environment for yeast to spiral out of control, resulting in an infection.
And, it turns out, there's some overlap between yeast infection and UTI risk factors. Being pregnant or having diabetes or a depressed immune system can also elevate your risk for a UTI.
- you're sexually active
- you recently had sex with a new partner
- you use spermicide and/or diaphragms
- you're going through menopause
- you have abnormalities in your urinary tract
- you have kidney stones or another blockage
- you use a catheter
- you recently had a urinary tract exam or operation
These situations can cause a UTI by either introducing unwanted bacteria into the urethra or lowering your body's natural defense mechanisms against pathogens.
Yeast infection vs. UTI treatments
Whether you've got a yeast infection or a UTI, treatment is generally pretty straightforward. However, doctors use very different tools to battle these distinct beasts.
Treatment for a yeast infection typically involves either a single pill of fluconazole (an antifungal drug) or using an antifungal cream, tablet, suppository, or ointment in your vagina for a few days to a week. Your symptoms will usually start going away within a few days of starting treatment, per research published by the National Institutes of Health.
When it comes to treating UTIs, antibiotics are the "gold standard," says a 2019 review in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics. You're usually looking at taking oral antibiotics, such as nitrofurantoin or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole, for three to five days, per the American Urological Association. The good news is that just one or two doses is enough to make you feel better (but you should definitely take the full course of antibiotics to make sure you wipe out all the unwanted bacteria).
Treatment could take longer and be more involved if you've got a serious yeast infection or UTI. That might mean a longer course of antifungals (either the ones you take by mouth or place directly on the infected area), or another type of medication for a severe yeast infection. Or, for a UTI that has moved up into your kidneys, you might need antibiotics through an IV at the hospital, followed by two weeks of oral antibiotics.
Preventing yeast infections and UTIs
While there's no guaranteed way to prevent a yeast infection or UTI from ever happening, there are some things you can do to ward off both types of infections.
Avoiding irritating feminine products, like douches, sprays, and scented tampons, can help prevent both UTIs and yeast infections, says the Office of Women's Health. You should also skip long baths and hot tubs. And if you think the type of birth control you're using is increasing your risk of yeast infections or UTIs, consider switching to another method.
There are also more specific things you can do to fend off yeast infections vs. UTIs, depending on which one you're most prone to. You can further reduce your risk of a yeast infection by:
- wearing cotton underwear
- avoiding tight undergarments, like underwear or pantyhose
- not staying in a wet bathing suit or sweaty leggings for long
- avoiding unnecessary antibiotics (just take them as prescribed)
As for preventing yeast infections, you can try:
- taking cranberry supplements (Cleveland Clinic says there's mixed evidence that these work, but it doesn't hurt to try!)
- peeing before and after sex
- staying hydrated
- going to pee often and not holding your bladder
- wiping from front to back
Yeast infections and UTIs can both make things pretty miserable down there. But knowing which infection you have—and getting the right treatment for it, stat!—can help you feel better in no time and try specific things to help you avoid coming down with another one.
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