UTIs affect your urethra so they aren’t technically a vaginal imbalance. But, they often occur because bacteria around the vagina gets into the urethra since they’re very close in proximity. About half of all women will experience urinary tract infections in their lifetimes, and despite treatment, about a quarter will develop recurrent infections within six months of initial infection.
Vaginal discharge and UTI frequently come hand in hand but not for the reasons you might think. You don’t need to be sexually active to experience a UTI. UTI is an infection that affects the urinary tract but imbalanced vaginal flora could predispose you to contract a UTI. UTIs are very common in women; they are much more likely than men to be affected.
UTIs occur when you get bacteria into your urinary system.
Your urinary system includes your:
UTIs are often characterized by:
- pelvic pain
- a burning feeling when you pee
- cloudy urine
Your vaginal health is a critical factor in predicting your chances to get sick with a UTI. If you have vaginal discharge caused by bacterial vaginosis (BV) or yeast infection, you might be heading for a UTI as well.
Another way vaginal discharge and UTI are connected goes back to the effect that antibiotics have on our body. When you take antibiotics for your UTI and notice a change in your vaginal health, this might predispose you to new UTIs afterward.
Did you know? A healthy vagina could prevent UTI!
Research shows that vaginal health plays a key role in UTIs in women. We now know that the vagina can be a source of the bacteria that cause UTIs and can also be a target for preventing UTIs. This is because the vagina contains naturally occurring bacteria, or normal flora that prevent UTIs and keep the vagina healthy.
Several other factors that increase a woman’s risk for poor vaginal health include:
- Low vaginal estrogen after menopause
- Some types of contraceptives.
Vaginal health is a crucial post-antibiotic intake!
Despite decades of research on UTIs, the main tool for preventing frequent recurrence of UTIs is still low dose antibiotics. According to The American Academy of Family Physicians, antimicrobial prophylaxis has proved effective in reducing the risk of recurrent UTIs in women. There is mounting concern about the rise of “ superinfection ,” caused by bacteria that are resistant to all antibiotics because of their rampant overuse. Antibiotics also alter the bacterial residents of the vagina. In fact, the use of antibiotics for any reason has been associated with an increased risk of bacterial vaginosis or vaginal candidiasis.
Your vagina is your protector!
The vagina plays a major role in protecting women from UTIs. The “bad” bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E.coli), that cause UTIs generally come from the gastrointestinal system. These bacteria make their way to the vagina and periurethral area as a pit stop to the bladder and the kidneys. The vagina, therefore, can be a source of protection by stopping the bacteria from getting to the bladder. Understanding the vaginal environment may be a vital step in preventing UTIs.
We know that you also have the “good” bacteria within the vagina. These good bacteria produce hydrogen peroxide, which is vital to a healthy vaginal ecosystem. Based on a clinical investigation (J Infect Dis 1999 Dec ) lactobacilli were identified in 215 (71%) of 302 women. The 3 predominant species identified were L. crispatus (32%), L. jensenii (23%), and lactobacillus 1086V (15%). Among these species, 95%, 94%, and 9%, respectively, produced H2O2. Peroxide actively kills the “bad” bacteria that cause UTIs and bacterial vaginosis.
Did you know our microbiome changes when we get a UTI?
One more reason for vaginal discharge and UTI could be that UTIs change the composition of bacteria within the vagina.
Before a UTI occurs, the vaginal opening and periurethral area are contaminated with E. coli or other bad bacteria. There are also fewer lactobacilli, suggesting that lactobacilli inhibit the growth of the bad bacteria.
Multiple studies show that the more lactobacilli in the vagina, the less likely a woman is to have recurring UTIs. Importantly, immediately after a UTI, the lactobacilli have not fully recovered, which increases the period that we are at increased risk for a repeat UTI.
If you noticed changes to your normal vaginal discharge, it’s important to understand what caused it and get treated since not only it could be indicative of an STD, BV or yeast infection but also make you more susceptible to bacteria causing UTIs. If a person leaves either infection untreated, it can progress, causing worse symptoms and additional complications.
Next read: Vulvovaginal Candidiasis