What’s worse than a painful, burning urinary tract infection? Perhaps suffering from recurring infections might be even more traumatic. Not only can the symptoms interfere with daily life, they can create a stigma and cause anxiety on an ongoing basis that makes it difficult to function. In fact, some people don’t even feel comfortable leaving the house. One question that arises, though, is what causes recurring UTIs? Can they be related to sexually transmitted infections, such as genital herpes? Or is this a completely separate issue?
What is a UTI?
A UTI is a bacterial infection (or, on occasion, a fungal infection) that occurs in one or more parts of the urinary tract, which consists of the urethra, the bladder, the ureters, and the kidneys. While the body has systems in place to help keep bacteria from entering, there are times when germs get into the urethra. In many cases, bacteria don't get any further and are cleansed during urination. However, sometimes bacteria manage to proliferate in the urethra or make their way further into the tract, leading to infection. So, with that in mind, how could genital herpes lead to a UTI?
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes may just be the most frequent sexually transmitted disease. While many people with the infection go undiagnosed, it’s believed that about one in five Americans have contracted genital herpes. Like other herpes viruses, such as chicken pox, genital herpes rests and remains in the body forever once contracted. However, it has breakouts, at which times there are rashes and sores on and around the genitals. Those sores eventually burst and become ulcers, with pus and fluid draining from them.
As time goes on, outbreaks tend to be less severe and less frequent. However, even when the patient isn’t in the midst of an outbreak, the disease is still contagious and should take care to use protection during sex, also making their partner aware of the condition.
Herpes as a cause of UTIs
Though E. Coli is the most common cause of a urinary tract infection, other types of bacteria can cause the infection. Therefore, if a patient in the midst of a herpes breakout, with open sores that are infected, does not take care to cleanse the area properly and assure they have good hygiene, it is possible for that bacteria to transfer to the urethra and cause an infection, especially since those bacteria are not natural to the urinary tract.
More commonly, however, the onset of a genital herpes outbreak is mistaken for a UTI because symptoms are similar, rather than one being the cause of the other.
Symptoms of UTIs and herpes
In many cases, the symptoms experienced by a patient with genital herpes resemble those of a UTI at first, which can lead to the mistaken conclusion that herpes has caused the UTI. Rather, the initial symptoms that tend to occur one or two days before the sores of an outbreak appear may mimic those of a UTI. These include:
- A burning sensation when urinating
- Painful urination
- Frequent and urgent need to urinate, as well as difficulty urinating
However, as the symptoms progress, patients with genital herpes also experience:
- Numbness nad tingling or even burning in the genital area
- Watery blisters in and around the genitals
- Tenderness and sores near the rectum
These additional sores, once burst, can take up to four weeks to heal. Throughout this time, hygiene is of the utmost importance to assure that bacteria don’t settle into these sores or transfer bacteria from them to the urethra.
Preventing genital herpes
There are plenty of ways to help reduce the risk of contracting genital herpes, most of which include various safe sex practices, since this is an STI.
- Always use a condom. Covering the infected areas can go a long way in reducing the chances of contagion.
- Know any partner’s sexual history, including if they have slept with someone who has had an STI or if they have ever contracted an STI.
- Limit the number of sexual partners and try to maintain only partners with a clean history of STIs. This is easier when practicing mutual monogamy.
- Avoid oral sex with anyone who has a cold sore, as this is another strain of herpesvirus that could be contracted on the genitals.
- Avoid sex if either partner has a current outbreak. Genital herpes can be contracted even without active sores, but it is more so when ulcers appear.
In addition, individuals can do a lot to avoid contracting a UTI.
- Wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria from the anus or vaginal area to the urethra.
- Clean the genital region before and after sex.
- Urinate immediately after sex to help reduce the number of bacteria transferred into the urethra during the act.
- Don’t hold urine when the urge to go arises and empty the bladder completely with each trip to the restroom. Urinate frequently to avoid bacterial build up.
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and avoid those with excess caffeine and sugar when possible.
- Take showers instead of baths to avoid sitting in the bacteria that is washed from the body.
- Don’t use scented deodorants, soaps, or douches.
About half of women and one tenth of men will experience a UTI at some point, though it may be extremely mild and not severe. In addition, about one fifth of the population has contracted genital herpes. Neither of these are pleasant, and while UTIs may be recurrent in some cases, genital herpes is chronic in all cases and cannot be cured.