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Making sure a patient understands the difference between a UTI and an STI when evaluating symptoms can help determine how serious the condition is.

For too long, the health of the "unmentionable" areas of the body has been a taboo subject, simply because private parts were considered a private matter. But in order for individuals to maintain overall health, it’s essential to assure that all parts of the body are taken care of. That includes understanding what happens to the body when it has contracted an STD/STI (sexually transmitted disease/infection) or a UTI (urinary tract infection). Naivety can make it difficult to know the difference between the two, which also makes it hard to treat either condition.

What is a UTI?

The urinary tract is the system that expels urine, taking waste out so that the body can stay balanced. It includes the kidneys, bladder, urethra, and connections between these organs. A urinary tract infection occurs when bacteria infects one of these organs.

There are several ways to contract a UTI, including:

  • Wiping back to front instead of front to back
  • Using a diaphragm for birth control
  • Waiting to urinate when the urge arises
  • Long periods of immobility
  • Not urinating immediately after intercourse
  • Wearing underwear that does not have a breathable, cotton crotch
  • Bathing rather than showering, especially with perfumed bubble bath
  • Using feminine sprays or douches
  • Wearing tight fitting, non-breathable fabrics

What is an STD or STI?

Formerly called sexually transmitted diseases and now referred to as infections to include the broader spectrum of ailments, an STI is an infection or disease that is transmitted through sex, whether, vaginal, anal, or oral. They can also be contracted with nonsexual contact through sharing needles for intravenous drug use, childbirth, and breastfeeding. With the number of STIs there are now, they are quite common, and a large number of people have an STI of some form without even knowing it.

Aside from sexual contact, other means that may cause the transmission of an STI include:

  • Eating food contaminated by fecal matter (hepatitis A)
  • Skin to skin contact with an individual who has HPV or herpes
  • Sharing sheets, towels, or clothing that is damp and has been worn/used by someone infected within the hour (trichomoniasis)
  • Sharing needles or razors for any purpose

UTIs vs STDs: Symptoms and similarities

Education regarding UTIs and STIs helps to distinguish one from the other, especially since there are several commonalities between these conditions. In many cases, an STI may be overlooked, simply because the patient assumes they have a UTI.

Symptoms the conditions share include:

  • Increased urgency and frequency of urination
  • Pain or burning when urinating, known as dysuria
  • Urine that has a foul or unusual smell
  • Cloudy or oddly/darkly colored urine
  • Unusual discharge
  • Pelvic discomfort or pain

Why it’s essential to know the difference between STIs and UTIs

The reason that individuals need to understand the difference between a UTI and an STI is twofold. First, UTIs are often treated with a round of a specific type of antibiotics. Treating with these when there is no urinary tract infection is pointless but can also lead to the body becoming resistant to the strain of antibiotics. What this means is, if the patient develops a UTI in the future, they may not respond to the antibiotic treatment, and the infection will not clear up.

The second reason is perhaps even more important. In the early stages, most STIs can be treated, many of them even cured. However, if undetected, the illness will progress and become much harder to manage. In some instances, the advancement of the infection can lead to an incurable disease.

Telling the difference

While many symptoms of a UTI also occur with an STI, there are additional signs to watch for with an STI that are extremely uncommon in a simple urinary tract infection.

  • Blisters or rashes in the genital area, especially directly on the vagina, penis, or scrotum
  • Pain during intercourse, particularly in women
  • Bleeding abnormally between menstrual cycles
  • Fever (some UTIs produce a very low grade fever, but most do not)
  • Frequent nausea
  • Swelling in the joints
  • Sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Sore or swollen lymph nodes, especially in the groin
  • Rash on the trunk, feet, and/or hands

Complications of an STI

Unfortunately, some STIs don’t produce any symptoms at all, so it’s important to be vigilant. Having an STI diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible can prevent complications that occur with the contraction of many such diseases.

If left untreated, patients run an increased risk of:

  • Becoming infertile
  • Developing certain kinds of cancer
  • Spreading the infection to any sexual partner(s)
  • Causing damage to an unborn child
  • Becoming more susceptible to contracting HIV

UTIs And STIs: Understanding the risk factors

Both UTIs and STIs have risk factors involved, and those who fall under these categories should be especially diligent in preventative methods and assuring regular testing and checkups for possible development.

Those at greater risk for a UTI include:

  • Those born as a genetic female
  • Those who are sexually active (especially women)
  • Use of certain kinds of birth control (especially diaphragms with spermicide)
  • Postmenopausal women
  • Abnormalities of the urinary tract
  • Blockages such as bladder stones and kidney stones
  • A suppressed or weakened immune system (such as in diabetics)
  • Use of a catheter
  • Reduced mobility
  • A recent procedure involving part of the urinary tract

For STIs, risk factors include:

  • Unprotected sex
  • Sexual contact with multiple partners (especially if they, too, have multiple partners)
  • Abuse of alcohol of drugs (due to inhibited judgment)
  • A history of STIs
  • Age (more than half of STIs are contracted by people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four)
  • Intravenous drug use
  • Men seeking medication for erectile dysfunction (likely due to seeking new and multiple partners)

Conclusion

Making sure a patient understands the difference between a UTI and an STI when evaluating symptoms can help determine how serious the condition is. In any case, a visit to the patient’s physician is in order, but presenting all the information can help the doctor make an educated decision regarding testing and then treatment, avoiding complications no matter which scenario is accurate. Taking into account the potential for complications and how either a UTI or one of many STIs can impact the future, it’s vital to assure overall health.

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