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Urinary tract infection: What is a UTI and what causes it

While we know chronic stress is doing our physical and mental health no favours, it could also be a contributing factor if you deal with recurrent UTIs.

Many of us have experienced the pain and discomfort of a urinary tract infection or UTI.

For some, they seem to occur more frequently, while other lucky ones may only have it once in their lifetime. Whatever the case may be, when you discover you do have a UTI, you may wonder what caused it.

From birth control to sex and even dehydration, several factors may lead to a UTI – but could stress also be one?

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What is a UTI?

UTI stands for urinary tract infection and, as the name suggests, it affects the urinary system.

“UTIs can involve the lower urinary tract – the bladder – and/or the upper urinary tract – the kidneys and tubes leading up to the kidneys,” Dr Kirsty Wallace-Hor, a GP at Kin Fertility, explains.

“50 per cent of women will have one during their lifetime, and about 1 in 20 men will have one,” she adds.

“Women are at a higher risk because their urethra – the tube leading out from the bladder – is shorter and straighter, allowing bacteria to travel up into the bladder more easily.”

Can stress and anxiety cause UTIs?

The short answer is no. There’s no research that proves that high stress can directly cause a UTI. However, that doesn’t mean the two aren’t linked at all.

“Our sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress and this stress response is associated with weakened immunity”, Dr Wallace-Hor explains.

“This is often why we’re more prone to infection, or flares of infections, such as cold sores when we’re “run down” and stressed. This is worth bearing in mind, particularly if you’re prone to getting UTIs.”

Can you prevent stress-induced UTIs?

It may sound obvious, but preventing stress-induced UTIs is all about learning how to reduce your stress levels.

For most, this is easier said than done and in today’s day and age, we’ll dare say it is impossible to completely avoid stress. However, there are simple ways to manage it and reduce risk factors:

  • Try meditation or breathing exercises. Even just a few minutes daily can help you feel more grounded.
  • Move your body. Yoga is a great relaxing option, but if you prefer high-intensity workouts, go for it. As long as it pumps up your endorphins, it will help your mental health.
  • Opt for healthy, nutritious meals. You are what you eat and so is your mind.
  • Rest. When you don’t get enough (and adequate) sleep, you feel tired, and when you feel tired, you’re more likely to feel stressed. Create a healthy sleep routine and break this cycle.
  • Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. They may seem like an easy way to escape stress, but they don’t help with what’s most important: addressing the root cause of your feelings.
  • Do something that brings you joy every day. Maybe it’s reading, crocheting or riding a bike. Whatever it is, carve out some “me” time to do something you know will make you happy.

Additionally, stay hydrated, steer clear of vaginal hygiene products, always pee after sex, and wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. This will all help you keep UTIs at bay, stress-induced or otherwise.

How do I know if I have a UTI?

According to Dr Wallace-Hor, simple bladder infections can cause symptoms like:

  • Cloudy or smelly urine
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Burning or stinging when urinating
  • Frequent urination
  • Feeling the need to urinate urgently
  • Blood in urine 

“These usually resolve quickly with antibiotic therapy. Keeping well hydrated and using simple painkillers like paracetamol will also help,” she explains.

“Symptoms that suggest you might have a more complicated UTI include pain in your side or back, nausea or vomiting, fever, chills or severe fatigue.”

It’s also worth noting that common signs of a UTI can sometimes overlap with other conditions: “If you have some UTI symptoms but are also experiencing symptoms like a vaginal itch, changes in vaginal discharge or painful sex, you should see your GP to exclude other infections, like thrush or sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia.”

Finally, if stress and anxiety have become constants in your life, and no relaxation techniques seem to work, consider opening up to a mental health professional. They’ll help you identify your triggers and equip you with coping mechanisms to lower your stress levels.

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