Around 65% of U.S. women of reproductive age use some form of contraception. The options range from the traditional once-a-day pill to long-acting methods like IUDs or hormonal implants. As great as birth control can be, though, it can also come with unexpected side effects…including, in some cases, a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Birth control methods with spermicide—such as diaphragms, cervical caps, spermicide gels or creams, and spermicide-coated condoms—have been linked to an increased risk for urinary tract infections. (Womp, womp.) It’s not quite as simple as you might think, though, and there are plenty of things you can do to prevent UTIs before they happen. So don’t ditch your birth control quite yet—safe sex is a health priority too!
What Is a UTI?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a bacterial infection in the urinary system, which encompasses the urethra, bladder, ureter, and kidneys. UTIs are extremely common, affecting more than half of women and a smaller percentage of men at least once in their lives.
Doctors split UTIs into two categories: Lower tract UTIs, which occur in the urethra and bladder (also called bladder infections), and upper tract UTIs (a.k.a. kidney infections), which tend to be more severe. Lower tract UTIs are more common and easier to treat.
UTI symptoms include:
- a burning or stinging sensation during urination
- feeling the urge to urinate frequently
- noticeable blood in the urine
- abdominal discomfort
Upper tract UTIs can also cause nausea, fever, body chills, lower back pain, and side pain.
If your UTI is mild, you may only feel slightly “off” at first, but in serious cases, a UTI can cause major discomfort and pain. And the longer it’s left untreated, the worse it tends to become.
Why Are Birth Control and UTIs Related?
Certain contraceptives alter the vaginal flora or microbiome, a.k.a. the natural balance of good bacteria that thrives in the vagina.
Specifically, one genus of bacteria called Lactobacillus comprises the majority of the vaginal flora and helps protect the health of the genital area. But when that natural balance of bacteria gets out of whack, bad bacteria like E. coli have an easier time entering the urinary tract.
That’s the thinking behind why certain forms of birth control and UTI are linked. It’s not a one-to-one correlation—just because you use spermicide doesn’t mean you’re destined to get frequent UTIs—but it’s something to think about if you’re trying to pin down the cause of your recurrent urinary tract infections. Changing your birth control method may help prevent UTIs in some cases.
What Types of Birth Control May Increase Your UTI Risk?
The following forms of birth control are tied to increased incidence of UTI. What do all of these have in common? They can throw off the balance of the vaginal microbiome.
- Spermicide: Spermicide works by using a chemical to block sperm from entering the cervix, cutting off contact between the sperm and the egg. It usually comes as a gel or foam that’s inserted into the vagina before having sex.
- Diaphragms: You insert these silicone cups coated with spermicide into your vagina before sex.
- Cervical caps: These insertable cups block sperm from entering your cervix. They’re also used with spermicide.
- Spermicide-coated condoms: Some condoms are coated in spermicide to provide double-duty contraceptive protection.
Do Birth Control Pills Increase Your Risk For UTI?
There’s no data suggesting that contraceptive pills are linked to UTI risk. In fact, oral contraceptives work through a totally different mechanism than spermicide does.
Birth control pills alter the hormones to stop ovulation, which means there’s no egg available for the sperm to fertilize when you have sex. This changes the estrogen and progesterone levels in your body, but it doesn’t harm the bacteria in your urinary tract and vagina.
Other UTI Risk Factors
Birth control with spermicide isn’t the only thing that puts people at risk for UTIs, nor is it the most common cause. Here are some others:
- Sexual activity: The more often you have sex (including oral sex, penetrative sexual intercourse, and masturbation), the higher your risk for UTIs. Think about it: When you’re having sex, the movement and friction in your genital area can cause bacteria from your rectum to move toward your urethra.
- Biological sex: People with vaginas get UTIs up to 30 times more often than people with penises do. This is unfortunately due to the way their bodies are designed. Those with vaginas have a shorter urethra and a shorter distance between their anus and urinary tract. This, combined with sexual activity, can be the perfect storm for triggering a UTI.
- Age: After menopause the risk for UTI increases due to the natural decline in estrogen levels and urinary incontinence that often comes along with this time of life.
- Genetics: Blame your parents! Research shows that people with a close family member who gets recurrent UTIs may also be more likely to get them.
- Hygiene: Anything that makes it easier for bad bacteria to get to your urinary tract puts you at higher risk for getting a UTI. This includes wiping back to front, leaving sweaty clothes on for hours after you’ve finished working out, or forgetting to change your underwear daily or wash your sex toys after each use.
UTI Prevention Options
They say the best defense is a good offense, so your best bet for preventing UTIs is to be proactive, especially if you have risk factors you can’t control, like age or genetics. Try these simple practices:
- Wipe from front to back when you use the bathroom. This minimizes the chances of accidental contact between bacteria from your rectum and your urethra.
- Drink lots of water. Not only is proper hydration good for overall health, it also keeps you urinating regularly. And when you have to go, avoid holding your urine—go!
- Change out of sweaty or wet clothes ASAP. These can be a breeding ground for bacteria to move around.
- Pee after sexual activity. Although this is not proven, it may help flush out bacteria and keep your urinary tract healthy.
- Try drinking cranberry juice. Some science suggests that cranberries contain an active ingredient called proanthocyanidins that may stop bacteria like E. coli from adhering to the urinary tract. However, this is not a guaranteed way to prevent UTIs, and it is no substitute for prescribed antibiotic treatment if you have a UTI.
- Consider probiotics or vitamin C supplements. These home remedies have also been linked to the prevention of recurrent UTIs. But again, more research is necessary to prove their effectiveness.
How to Treat a UTI
If you notice telltale symptoms of a UTI, call up your urologist or primary care doctor.
Based on your symptoms, medical history, and possibly a urine culture, they can confirm whether your UTI intuition was correct.
If so, they can prescribe a regimen of antibiotics to treat the infection. You’ll take the antibiotic for a few days. Even if you start to feel better, it’s important to finish out the entire course of treatment to ensure the UTI goes away completely.
And if you’re wondering, do UTI antibiotics affect birth control? The answer is no. You can still use your contraceptive of choice during and after antibiotic treatment. (But maybe consider alternative contraceptive methods if your doctor determines this was the culprit for your UTI.)
When to See a Doctor
Antibiotics require a doctor’s prescription, so you’ll need to see a healthcare professional as soon as you think you might have a UTI. Luckily, it’s easier than ever now to get the care you need, and you don’t even have to leave your couch.
The K Health app can help you get UTI treatment right in the middle of your Netflix binge, without even having to pause your favorite show.
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.