Both urinary tract infections (UTIs) and vaginal yeast infections are so common among women that getting your first one is almost a rite of passage. At some point in their lives, more than half of women in the United States will experience a UTI, and around 75 percent will have a vaginal yeast infection, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health.
UTI vs. Yeast Infection: What Causes Them?
A urinary tract infection is a bacterial infection of the bladder and urethra (the duct that carries urine out of the bladder). If bacteria is close to the genitals, it could enter through the urethra and travel up to the bladder, where it populates rapidly and causes an infection.
A vaginal yeast infection (a.k.a., vulvovaginal candidiasis) is not caused by bacteria. Instead, it’s an overgrowth of candida yeast in the vagina. Candida yeast is a fungus that lives in small amounts all over your skin. You can find this yeast on healthy vaginas, too. However, it can grow out of control in some places, such as in the mouth and throat (known as “thrush”) and in the vagina.
Symptoms of UTIs vs. Symptoms of Yeast Infections
When it comes to symptoms of these two infections, there is some overlap, and they both cause intense discomfort and sometimes pain. However, there are key differences between the two.
Pain vs. Itch: The key symptom of UTIs is intense burning during urination. After all, it is an infection of the urinary system. UTIs may also cause pain or pressure in the lower abdomen.
Yeast infections may burn during urination (as well as during sex), but mostly they itch—badly. You’ll feel this intense itch even when you’re not urinating. This itch will be exterior, on the skin of your vagina and vulva, and not deep in the urinary tract. These areas may also look red and swollen.
Urination: UTIs may cause a milky or cloudy urine with a strong and foul odor. Additionally, it causes an urge to urinate frequently, even if not much comes out. Yeast infections do not typically change the look or smell of your urine.
Discharge: Yeast infections are infamous for potentially causing a thick, white, cottage cheese-like discharge. This discharge doesn’t have a distinct smell. UTIs do not typically cause a discharge. (Learn more about what you can learn from vaginal discharge here.)
Treatment for UTIs and Yeast Infections
Knowing the difference between the two infections is essential, since treatment between the two differs. UTIs must be treated by a doctor because you’ll need a prescription for antibiotics. Untreated, UTIs can spread to other parts of the body, such as the kidneys, which may cause a fever or for you to feel unwell overall.
Vaginal yeast infections, on the other hand, can often be treated at home with over-the-counter antifungal medications. That said, it’s still a good idea to see a healthcare provider to make sure you have a vaginal yeast infection and not something else.
Still not sure what’s causing that pain down there? Dial up your doctor to clear up the confusion—and the infection.