When left untreated, a UTI in the lower urinary tract can spread to the kidneys, which can lead to serious health issues and possibly even be life-threatening. The symptoms of a kidney infection can include fever, chills, a burning sensation while you pee, nausea, vomiting, blood in your urine, foul-smelling pee, and pain in your back, side, abdomen, or groin, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Those are the tell-tale signs of a UTI,” Dr. Dweck says. “The tell-tale signs of a yeast infection are very different.”
Here’s the deal with yeast infections.
Yeast infections happen when a fungus known as Candida builds up too much in your body and wreaks havoc. Candida isn’t actually always a cause for concern, though. In fact, the CDC says it’s normal to find Candida in warm, moist (sorry) body parts like your throat, mouth, gut, and, you guessed it, vagina. Candida can become a problem, however, when it overgrows to the point of causing an infection.
What can contribute to this overgrowth of Candida in the vagina specifically? Well, Candida exists alongside bacteria called Lactobacillus that help to maintain the crucial balance of microorganisms in the vagina, the Mayo Clinic explains. Changes in estrogen (like from pregnancy, birth control, and hormone therapies) can throw off this balance, as can taking medications like antibiotics. Wearing damp clothes next to your vagina for too long can also increase your risk, as it creates a wet, Candida-friendly environment, the Mayo Clinic says. (This is why changing out of your swimsuit, workout leggings, and the like ASAP is always a good idea.)
Then there’s the question of how to tell the symptoms of a yeast infection apart from those of a UTI. We hate to break it to you, but there can be some similarities—namely, a burning sensation, especially when you pee, according to the Mayo Clinic. The other possible symptoms of a yeast infection are pretty different from those of a UTI; they include itchiness, irritation, swelling of the vulva, and the hallmark thick, white discharge that doesn’t have an odor. “If somebody’s got a white cottage-cheese discharge…and the vulva looks swollen and red, that’s probably a yeast infection,” Dr. Minkin says. Yeast infections can also cause watery vaginal discharge, for what it’s worth.
UTIs and yeast infections are both relatively common, FYI.
Both of these issues suck all-around, but we hope shame isn’t part of your discomfort. Every year there are an estimated 1.4 million outpatient visits for yeast infections in the United States, the CDC says, (and given the prevalence of over-the-counter treatments, the exact number of cases is unknown). The Mayo Clinic estimates that 75% of women have had a yeast infection at some point in their lives.
UTIs are also pretty run-of-the-mill, with about 40 to 60% of women experiencing one in their lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
All this means that if you have either of these infections, you’re not alone. What’s more, you have treatment options.
UTIs and yeast infections need very different treatments.
The issue is not just that these two infections require different medications to relieve you of your symptoms. It’s also that if you try to treat what you think is a yeast infection with over-the-counter meds when it’s really a UTI (which you can only treat with a prescription), you could eventually be at risk for a kidney infection, or at the very least not actually get rid of your UTI. “You’re not going to get better,” Dr. Minkin says bluntly about using the wrong treatment.