How To Tell The Difference Between A UTI And Yeast Infection

Have you ever felt a burning sensation while urinating or irritation in your genital area? If you have a vagina, chances are you have unfortunately experienced these symptoms. You may have heard of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections, and even if you have not gone through them yourself, the prevalence rates are so high that you have likely encountered someone who has. According to Women's Integrated Healthcare, a staggering 75% of women will experience a yeast infection at least once in their lifetime, and around 45% of women will face multiple infections. Similarly, nearly 40% of women will contend with UTI symptoms, as reported by the Urology Care Foundation.

Despite the high incidence of these conditions, they are often confused, and understandably so. Both involve the genital area and share some overlapping characteristics, such as a burning sensation during urination. However, a yeast infection and a UTI are two completely separate conditions that require tailored treatment plans since their causes differ. "A UTI is an infection of the bladder, where urine is stored," Melissa Wong, MD, a gynecologist at the Boston University Medical Center, told Women's Health Magazine. "A yeast infection is an overgrowth of yeast. This can occur in many parts of the body, including the vagina and the skin outside of the vagina (also called the vulva)."

What is a UTI?

Urinary tract infections are common infections affecting the urinary system, including the bladder, kidneys, and tubes connected to them. These infections are caused by bacteria typically residing in our gut that make their way into our urethra, travel along the urinary tract, and begin multiplying. E. coli (Escherichia coli) is responsible for 8 out of every 10 UTIs, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Other bacteria that cause UTIs include Klebsiella pneumoniae and Staphylococcus saprophyticus (per Medical News Today).

Typically, the bacteria remain in the bladder during the early stages of a UTI. However, if left untreated, the bacteria may make their way to the kidneys, leading to a more dangerous infection called pyelonephritis. Symptoms of pyelonephritis include a high fever, back pain, chills, and bloody or cloudy urine (via Cleveland Clinic). Infections of the kidneys and the tubes between the kidneys and the bladder are often referred to as upper UTIs and can spread to the bloodstream if not promptly attended to.

Although UTIs can be painful and dangerous, they can be easily treated with antibiotics. A typical treatment involves taking a three-day antibiotic capsule or tablet, according to NHS inform. In more severe cases, a longer cycle of antibiotics may be recommended by your doctor. Symptoms often subside within three to five days of initiating treatment.

UTI risk factors

While around 40% of women will likely develop a urinary tract infection during their lifetime, certain risk factors make you more susceptible to it, according to the Office on Women's Health. For example, sexually active women are at a greater risk because having sex can transfer germs from the vagina to the urethra. Moreover, women who utilize spermicides also increase their risk since those agents kill bacteria in the vagina that actually help shield you from UTIs. Hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause also change the vaginal environment, increasing the likelihood that bad bacteria will grow and move up to the urinary tract.

Conditions such as kidney stones (which may block the urinary system) and diabetes (which inflicts neurological damage) make it more difficult for the bladder to empty all the way, thus increasing the risk of UTI. Similarly, women who do not take frequent restroom breaks and try to hold it until they get home put themselves at risk. While holding in your pee is not necessarily always bad, this allows the bacteria within the bladder to increase that would have otherwise been dislodged in the process (per Ridgecrest Regional Hospital). Accordingly, if you fail to imbibe a sufficient amount of water, your urine levels decrease, and more bacteria remain in your bladder to cause UTIs. UTIs are also a common side effect of catheter use (a tube that drains your urine), as seen with individuals who have been hospitalized or undergone surgery.

What is a yeast infection?

Yeast infections are more common than UTIs and are not considered sexually transmitted diseases. They occur when the production of normal vaginal yeast increases excessively. The most common type of fungus that grows out of control and causes infection is candida albicans.

Many every day habits can result in yeast infections. Warm and humid environments are breeding grounds for yeast. Thus, staying in wet or sweaty clothes for extended periods (such as after a gym workout, or in a wet swimsuit during summer) will increase their production, per Vital Record. The same goes for wearing super tight clothes. Other causes include taking antibiotics, being on the pill (which causes hormonal changes), or being pregnant. A yeast infection causes irritation and swelling in the vagina and the vulva. A doctor will perform a pelvic exam to assess signs of infection in the genital area and test vaginal secretions to identify the fungus behind the infection. Determining the fungus type is crucial in prescribing the correct treatment.

Treatment for yeast infections depends on the severity of the infection and how frequently it occurs. According to Mayo Clinic, mild and moderate symptoms can be treated with short-term, three to seven-day vaginal therapy. Antifungal medications in the form of creams, suppositories, ointments, and tablets are typically used. While some require a doctor's prescription, others may be possible to obtain over-the-counter. For more severe infections, longer-term therapy may be required, which may last up to six months.

UTI vs. yeast infection - what's the difference?

To quickly recap, yeast infections are caused by fungi, while UTIs are caused by bacteria. Knowing what causes each infection is critical in helping you protect yourself and minimize the risk of developing either one. However, this knowledge does little to aid you in identifying which is which. The best way to differentiate them is by an accurate description of their symptoms. UTIs affect the lower urinary tract, including the urethra and bladder, while yeast infections affect the genital area (per Medical News Today).

According to Healthline, yeast infections cause generalized pain and itching of the genitals, while UTIs center more on issues related to peeing. Both may involve a burning sensation around the genital area during urination, which can make it difficult to distinguish between the two conditions. As Dr. 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," told, "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."

Check the symptoms to tell them apart

Still confused about UTIs and yeast infections? Luckily, their distinct symptoms can help clarify things. During a UTI, you often have an urgent need to pee, and you feel the need to urinate more frequently, which can cause you to wake up at night. On the other hand, during a yeast infection, you do not experience any changes in your urination habits. During a UTI, your urine may be reddish, pinkish, cloudy, and/or foul-smelling, and sometimes contain blood. In contrast, during a yeast infection, your urine does not smell, but you experience an unusual, odorless, thick, milky-looking vaginal discharge (as per Everlywell). No such discharge is experienced during a UTI.

UTIs are not associated with itchiness but do cause a burning sensation during urination. A yeast infection, however, is characterized by itchiness in the vagina and the vulva area. When you have a UTI, you may also experience lower tummy aches and pelvic pain, as well as tiredness and fatigue (via NHS inform). According to Healthline, in cases of a more serious infection, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills may also occur. Yeast infection symptoms include pain during urination and sex. Although very rare, yeast infection may also lead to high fever in cases of invasive candidiasis (per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Keeping these symptoms in mind might help you differentiate between UTI and yeast infection, or at least provide you with insightful knowledge to share with your physician if you need to seek medical help.