Bladder Infection vs. UTI: What’s the Difference?

By Sarah Malka, MD
Medically reviewed
March 10, 2021

When it comes to taking care of yourself “down there,” you’re not alone if you have more questions than answers. Many people feel anxious at the mere thought of talking to their doctor about reproductive or sexual health concerns. Things like urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bladder infections happen to a lot of people and are nothing to be ashamed of, but they do need to be addressed ASAP for the sake of your health. 

It can be tough to distinguish a UTI from a bladder infection if you’ve never had one before. We’re here to help you out. We’ll go over the different types of UTIs and bladder infections, what causes each, treatment and prevention strategies, and potential complications to be aware of. Plus, we’ll provide advice on when to seek medical help. 

What Is a UTI and What Is a Bladder Infection?

A urinary tract infection is an infection in your urinary system. Around 50-60% of women will experience at least one UTI in their lifetime, and an unlucky number of them get UTIs frequently. The American Urological Association estimates that 20-40% of women who have had one UTI will get another one, and 25-50% of those women will end up having at least one more after that. Men can also get UTIs, though this happens less frequently than it does in women.

UTIs occur when unwanted bacteria end up in your urinary tract and trigger inflammation. They are caused by a variety of factors, including sexual activity, poor hygiene, genetics, age, and certain types of contraceptives.

The most reliable sign of a UTI is a stinging or burning sensation with urination, though other symptoms may also occur. 

A bladder infection is a type of UTI that occurs specifically in your bladder.

diagram of urinary tract in a male and a female

Think of it this way: Your urinary tract includes your urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys.

Your bladder is the closest organ to your urethra (the opening through which you urinate), so it’s the area of the body most commonly affected by UTIs. Doctors call inflammation in the bladder “cystitis” and inflammation in the urethra “urethritis.”

Bladder Infections vs. Other UTIs

It is possible to have a more serious type of urinary tract infection that affects your upper urinary tract, a.ka. your kidneys. This typically happens as a result of an untreated UTI in your bladder.

A kidney infection (also called pyelonephritis) causes symptoms like fever, nausea or vomiting, and one-sided back pain. It is serious and requires immediate medical intervention to avoid complications like scarring of the kidney.

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Causes of UTIs and Bladder Infections

UTIs and bladder infections occur as a result of bacterial growth in your urinary tract. Your body is naturally home to billions of species of bacteria, and not all of them are bad.

In fact, bacteria help keep your body functioning the way it’s supposed to. But some bacteria don’t belong in sensitive places in your body, and they can trigger some pretty miserable symptoms when they end up in the wrong place.

For example, E. coli, which is most commonly found in your digestive system, is also the most common type of bacteria to cause a UTI or bladder infection.

Several things can increase the risk of UTIs and bladder infections. While some of these risk factors are out of your control, you can control others.

  • Sexual intercourse: As fun as sex is, it can increase the risk of developing UTIs. The friction and movement around your genital area during sexual activity can facilitate bacteria moving around down there. 
  • Hygiene: Things like forgetting to change your underwear, wiping from back to front, or sitting in wet or sweaty clothes for prolonged periods can up your chances of getting a UTI. 
  • Genetics: Some people are simply more prone to UTIs than others. If someone in your immediate family gets UTIs regularly, you’re probably more susceptible to them too.
  • Age: Due to urinary incontinence and estrogen deficiency, research shows that women are more likely to get recurrent UTIs after menopause

Causes of UTIs and Bladder Infections in Men

Women are more likely to get urinary tract infections and bladder infections than men because they have a shorter urethra located closer to their rectum.

For them, sexual activity or even wearing a pair of underwear for too long can cause bacteria like E. coli to come in contact with the urinary tract.

Men can get UTIs too, but in their case, it’s usually due to genetics, prostate changes with age, or an abnormal immune response. STDs such as chlamydia are another frequent cause of UTIs in men. 

Treating UTIs and Bladder Infections

UTIs and bladder infections are typically treated with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor. In order for the infection to go away completely, you need to take the full course of antibiotics, which lasts 3-7 days in most instances but can last longer.

It takes a bit of time for the inflammation to clear up every once the antibiotic begins working, though most people note significant improvement within 48 hours of being on the right antibiotic.

If antibiotics bother your stomach (an unfortunate side effect for some people), consider taking probiotics to repopulate your good gut bacteria. This may also help you stay healthy and boost your body’s infection-fighting potential. 

In the meantime, drink plenty of water so the flow of urine can help you flush out your system. You might also want to avoid sexual activity while you’re recovering because it’s probably not going to feel great while your urinary tract is inflamed. 

Alternative Treatment Options

You might hear people talk about alternative treatments or home remedies like cranberry juice to cure a UTI or bladder infection. Some evidence suggests this may work, thanks to an active ingredient in cranberries that stops E. coli and other bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract.

Research has also suggested that taking probiotics may help prevent recurring UTIs, and that consuming at least 100mg of vitamin C daily may head off UTIs. 

However, more research is necessary to prove the effectiveness of all of these home remedies. None of them should be a substitute for seeing a health care provider because nothing works as well as antibiotics for the treatment of bladder infections and UTIs.

Also, UTI symptoms can be mistaken for things like interstitial cystitis (or painful bladder syndrome). Seeing a healthcare professional is the only way to confirm exactly what you’re dealing with and receive the appropriate treatment for that ailment.

Prevention 

Some basic practices can help prevent a future UTI or bladder infection. This includes:

  • Wiping front to back after urination or bowel movements. 
  • Going to the restroom as soon as you need to and making sure to empty your bladder fully.
  • Urinating immediately after sexual activity.
  • Changing your underwear daily (or more frequently if wet or sweaty).
  • Changing out of sweaty clothes as quickly as possible.
  • Wearing looser, breathable (cotton) underwear and avoiding thongs when possible.
  • Replacing spermicide with another form of contraception.
  • Avoiding douches, fragranced bath and shower products, and deodorant sprays in the genital areas. These can change the bacterial balance of the genital area and cause urethral irritation.
  • Staying well-hydrated.

Potential Complications

Mild UTIs and bladder infections sometimes go away on their own, but it’s best not to risk it.

Untreated UTIs can spread and lead to kidney infections, which have to be treated more aggressively with antibiotics and sometimes land people in the hospital for IV antibiotics.

Your safest bet is to address any UTI right away without waiting to see what happens. 

When to See a Doctor

As soon as you notice symptoms consistent with a urinary or bladder infection, contact your doctor. The treatment process should be quick and easy, but the longer you wait, the more complicated and painful things may become.

Untreated UTIs and bladder infections can lead to kidney infections. The symptoms of kidney infections overlap with bladder infections but are more intense and may include severe abdominal pain, one-sided or overall back pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. To avoid this situation, take a proactive approach to your UTI treatment and seek out a medical provider’s advice.

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How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get quick and affordable UTI treatment with K Health? Begin a visit for just $23 to text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s board-certified, U.S.-based doctors can provide a treatment plan and prescription to resolve your symptoms as soon as possible.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Sarah Malka, MD

Dr. Sarah Malka is a board certified emergency medicine physician with K Health. She completed her residency at Harvard Medical School.