UTI or something else: what can mimic a UTI?

Elizabeth Morrill
Elizabeth Morrill
Published Mar 27, 2023
A woman in pink slacks and a white top is crawling into a leafy green hedge in search of something

Key Points:

  1. A urinary tract infection (UTI) is any infection in the urinary system, including the urethra, bladder, ureters and kidneys. Most UTIs are caused by the bacteria E. coli, but other germs can also cause UTIs. 
  2. UTIs can cause symptoms like pain or burning with urination, a frequent need to pee, blood in the urine or pelvic pain. Other conditions that affect the urinary and pelvic area can have similar symptoms, making it hard to tell what’s going on.
  3. Talk to a medical provider about any problems with urination or if you have a fever, chills, pelvic or abdominal or back pain, or discharge from the urethra, vagina or penis. Most conditions that cause these symptoms can be treated with medications. Without treatment, some conditions can cause serious long-term complications, so it’s important to seek care if you have concerns.

Urinary tract infections are very common infections that occur in the urinary system – the urethra, bladder, ureters and kidneys. Up to 60% of people with female anatomy will develop a urinary tract infection (UTI) in their lifetime.

Without treatment, UTIs can turn into a more serious infection and potentially cause long-term damage. Luckily, most UTIs are easily treated with antibiotics.

You might be wondering if the symptoms you’re experiencing are from a UTI or something else. If you have pain or other problems with urination (peeing), be sure to talk to a medical provider to help understand what’s behind your symptoms.

What are the main UTI symptoms?

UTIs may be common, but they can still be extremely painful and disruptive. UTIs occur when bacteria (usually from the vagina or rectum) enter the urinary system.

Normally, your body can fight off bacteria, but sometimes the immune system gets overwhelmed. This allows bacteria to grow and spread. When this happens, you may experience symptoms like:

  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Abdominal or back pain
  • Bloating
  • Feeling like you have to go to the bathroom frequently and urgently
  • Blood in the urine
  • Fever, aches or chills
  • Nausea or vomiting

Learn more about UTI symptoms.

Is it a UTI or…?

A UTI is any infection in the urinary system. Symptoms of a UTI–like pain, discomfort and difficulty with urination–can sometimes be confused with other conditions. Here are some ways to figure out what’s going on.

UTI or bladder infection?

Bladder infections (aka cystitis) are the most common type of UTI. Remember that a UTI is an infection in any part of the urinary system, which includes the bladder.

Common signs that the infection is in the bladder include:

  • Pain or burning while peeing
  • Frequent, urgent need to go to the bathroom
  • Pelvic or low back pain

UTI or yeast infection?

A yeast infection can happen anywhere in the body, but a yeast infection in the vagina or penis can sometimes be confused with a UTI.

However yeast infections typically cause different symptoms than a UTI, such as:

  • White or yellow cheese-like discharge from the vagina
  • Burning, itching or redness on the exterior of the vagina or along the vaginal walls
  • Red, raw, itchy or painful rash on the penis

It’s important to know that antibiotics can impact the bacteria that grow in the vagina, making a yeast infection more likely. If you develop vaginal symptoms after starting antibiotics for a UTI or any other illness, talk to your medical provider about options.

UTI or chlamydia?

Chlamydia and UTIs can share many of the same symptoms. UTI’s are usually not sexually transmitted, however,  Chlamydia is sexually transmitted. Additionally, if the bacteria that causes chlamydia gets into the urinary system, it can cause a UTI.

The main difference between chlamydia and a UTI is discharge from the vagina or penis. Chlamydia can cause a yellowish, strong-smelling discharge from the vagina or a thin, milky discharge from the penis. However, chlamydia doesn’t always cause discharge, so if you’re not sure, it’s best to talk to a medical provider.

Symptoms of a chlamydia infection include:

  • Pain with urination
  • Discharge from the vagina or penis
  • Frequent urination

Chlamydia doesn’t always cause symptoms and sometimes symptoms are very mild. But even in mild cases, chlamydia can cause serious long-term problems, particularly in women, including infertility, increased risk of miscarriage and more widespread infection. That’s why it’s important to get tested for STIs regularly. It’s also why people who are sexually active with more than one partner should use a barrier method of birth control, like condoms. Sexual partners should also be treated to prevent retransmission.

UTI or STI?

It can be difficult to know whether symptoms like burning with urination are related to a UTI or a sexually transmitted infection (STI). (Also, technically, an STI can cause a UTI if it moves into the urinary system.)

Infections in the urethra in men are often caused by sexually transmitted infections like:

  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae (a bacteria that causes gonorrhea)
  • Chlamydia bacteria (a bacteria that causes chlamydia)
  • The herpes simplex virus (the virus that causes herpes)
  • Trichomonas (a parasite)

When trying to determine whether symptoms are related to a UTI or an STI, it’s helpful to remember that UTIs typically don’t cause any sort of discharge from the penis or vagina. They also don’t cause itching, bumps, sores or blisters around the genitals.

It’s also important to remember that STIs don’t always cause symptoms, and some symptoms – like burning with urination and pelvic pain – can happen with both STIs and UTIs. If you’re unsure about the cause of your symptoms, it’s a good idea to talk to a medical provider who can help you get answers.

UTI or kidney infection?

A kidney infection is a type of UTI. If a UTI reaches the kidneys, symptoms can be severe and include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever or chills
  • Body aches or back pain
  • Blood in the urine

A kidney infection requires prompt treatment. Without treatment, the infection can spread or cause permanent damage to the kidneys.

Kidney stones are sometimes confused with a UTI. A kidney stone is a small pebble that forms in the kidneys. As the stone travels down the urinary system, it can get stuck in a ureter or the urethra, causing intense pain and other symptoms.

A kidney stone can also cause a blockage of urine, which can lead to further infection. So while a kidney stone is not a UTI, it can cause UTIs by blocking or slowing the flow of urine.

Symptoms of a kidney stone depend on where the stone(s) are and how big they are. Kidney stones can be incredibly painful and may require prescription pain medications to manage the symptoms.

Symptoms of a kidney stone include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Reddish-brown or bloody urine
  • Feeling like you need to pee a lot
  • Pain or burning when you pee
  • Pain in the back or pelvic area

If you have questions about whether your symptoms are caused by a UTI or something else, talk to a medical provider. Most conditions that cause pain or burning with urination or other pelvic symptoms can be treated with medications.

Treat your UTI from home

If you’re wondering whether you might have a UTI, Dr. B can help. We offer a convenient virtual medical consultation for UTIs, including antibiotic prescriptions when appropriate.

Sources:

Aaron, D. M. (2021). Candidiasis (Yeast Infection). In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved January 24, 2023.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Bladder infection. In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2022.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Kidney infection. In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2022.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Overview of urinary tract infections. In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2022.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Urethritis. In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved December 27, 2022.

Medina, M., & Castillo-Pino, E. (2019). An introduction to the epidemiology and burden of urinary tract infections. Therapeutic advances in urology, 11, 1756287219832172. https://doi.org/10.1177/1756287219832172

Merck Manual Editorial Staff. (2021). Quick facts: Stones in the urinary tract (kidney stones). In Merck Manual Commercial Version. Merck & Co., Inc. Retrieved January 24, 2023.

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