Published Mar 27, 2023

What causes a UTI in women? Here are the top 8 reasons

Dr. Sudip Bose
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Sudip Bose
rolls of white toilet paper on a rose pink background
Published Mar 27, 2023

Key Points:

  1. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are caused by bacteria that enter the urinary system, usually through the urethra. They are treated with a course of antibiotic UTI pills.
  2. UTI risk is higher in people with female anatomy. Sexual activity, some kinds of birth control, structural abnormalities, and weakened immune systems can also increase the risk of developing a UTI.
  3. Practicing good hygiene can help reduce the risk of getting a UTI. It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids and pee frequently. This can help flush bacteria out of the urinary system.

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is caused by bacteria that grows and spreads in the urinary system, usually through the urethra (the opening where urine comes out). Common UTI symptoms include a sensation of burning while you pee, painful urination (dysuria), cloudy urine and dark or bloody urine.

UTIs are incredibly common, especially among people assigned female at birth (AFAB) between 18 and 39. But UTIs also happen to children and older adults. Many factors can cause this kind of infection—including the medications you take and how much water you drink.

The good news? Most people can prevent UTIs by following a few simple steps. And if you have a current infection and are looking for UTI medicine? Dr. B can help you get UTI antibiotics online with a virtual health consultation.

The top 8 potential causes of UTIs

The urinary system protects itself against infection by flushing out bacteria through urination. Anything that stops or slows urine flow out of the bladder and urethra can increase the chance that bacteria may grow and spread up the urinary tract.

Anyone can develop a UTI. But certain risk factors increase the chance of developing one.  These include:

  1. Having female anatomy. People with female anatomy are more prone to UTIs. More than 50% of all adult women will experience a UTI in their lifetime. That’s because the urethra is closer to the vagina and anus in people with female anatomy. This makes it easier for bacteria from the vagina or anus to enter the urethra. The urethra is also shorter, which makes it easier for bacteria to travel up the urethra to the bladder.
  2. Sexual activity. Having sex increases the risk of developing a UTI. Sex makes it more likely that bacteria around the vagina is introduced to the urethra. This can happen through oral, anal or vaginal sex. And you can get a UTI from fingers inserted into the vagina. Some sexually transmitted infections like herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia and mycoplasma can also infect the urethra. But you don’t have to be sexually active to get a UTI.
  3. Some kinds of birth control. Diaphragms and spermicides can increase the risk of getting a UTI. (So a lube can cause UTI if it includes spermicide.) Some research has also linked *un*lubricated condoms to greater UTI risk.
  4. Menopause. Menopause can lower estrogen levels, which changes the urinary system and increases the risk of UTIs. Hormonal shifts (and menstrual products) can make it easier to get a UTI after periods, too.
  5. Diabetes. Diabetes and other conditions that impact the immune system make it harder to fight infections and defend against bacteria that can cause UTIs.
  6. Structural problems. Kidney stones, enlarged prostates or anatomical differences can lead to blockages or other urination difficulties. When the body can’t regularly flush out bacteria from the urethra through urination, it increases the risk of UTIs.
  7. Pregnancy. Dehydration related to morning sickness can mean you urinate less often. Pregnancy hormones can also change the bacteria in your system. As pregnancy progresses, the weight of the uterus on the bladder and urethra can make it difficult to empty the bladder fully.
  8. Catheter use. A catheter is a thin, plastic tube that drains urine from the bladder. Catheters can increase the risk of developing a UTI. This is especially risky for people who are paralyzed, those who have recently had a hospital procedure or people with a neurological condition that makes it hard to control urination.

How to prevent a UTI

If you have a UTI, you should get antibiotics for UTI as soon as possible. Otherwise, you may develop some severe symptoms or a worsened condition.

Otherwise, you can reduce the chances of developing a UTI by following simple tips.

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Staying hydrated ensures that you pee often, which helps to flush bacteria out of your urinary system
  • Wipe front to back. After peeing or having a bowel movement, wipe from front to back only. This helps keep bacteria from the anus and vagina away from the urethra. 
  • Try a different kind of birth control. Bacterial growth is linked to some kinds of birth control, so UTIs are more common for people who use them. These include diaphragms, unlubricated condoms and spermicides (including condoms treated with spermicide). Talk to your doctor about other options if you use any of these. Oral contraceptives like the birth control pill may be safer for you.
  • Avoid potentially irritating feminine hygiene products. Douches, deodorant sprays and powders can cause irritation and increase the risk of UTIs. (This includes products used during menstrual cycles, too.)
  • Pee after sex. Use the bathroom and fully empty your bladder to flush out potential bacteria. Drinking plenty of water to encourage more urination can help, too.
  • Drink cranberry juice. The research isn’t 100% clear. But some studies suggest that drinking cranberry juice can help protect against UTIs.

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Sources:

Hisano, M., et al. (2012). Cranberries and lower urinary tract infection prevention. Clinics.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Bladder infection. Merck Manual Commercial Version.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Kidney infection. Merck Manual Commercial Version.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Overview of urinary tract infections. Merck Manual Commercial Version.

Imam, T. H. (2022). Urethritis. Merck Manual Commercial Version.

Medina, M., et al. (2019). An introduction to the epidemiology and burden of urinary tract infections. Therapeutic Advances in Urology.

Plüddemann, A. (2019). Can drinking more water prevent urinary tract infections? The evidence says yes. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Urinary tract infections (UTIs).

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