When I was studying A Level Philosophy and Ethics, I used the presence of Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) as evidence of a godless world. As this was not the only D I received that year, UTIs were frequent. Rumour has it that the line, “Don’t have sex – or you will get a kidney infection and die!” was cut from the health class scene of Mean Girls for being too accurate to be funny. Due to their having shorter urethras than men (meaning bacteria are more likely to reach the bladder), sexual intercourse is one of the most common causes of UTIs in women. I’m sure Cady Heron would have found that information more useful in life than twelfth-grade calculus.
Whilst no amount of animal ears and lingerie could make a UTI less terrifying, they do enjoy dressing up as a variety of characters, including cystitis (affecting the bladder), urethritis (affecting the urethra), and kidney infections (affecting the left leg…just kidding). In women, they can even sneakily disguise themselves as a period by employing stomach cramps and blood on toilet paper. Though it can be challenging to distinguish a UTI from similar diagnoses, there are some tell-tale symptoms including, but not limited to: pain during urination, needing to pee more often than usual, lower stomach pain, and a high temperature. Even if you’re 98% certain you have a UTI, it is best to ring up your GP at 8 am on the dot and wait for an hour in the queue listening to bad elevator music, before peeing in a pot (and on your hands), giving it to said GP and waiting three days for them to confirm.
Although it can be reassuring to receive a diagnosis, the advice on what to do next is vague at the best of times. Even the official NHS web page reads more like a TikTok influencer’s 2024 resolutions than sound medical advice. Taking cranberry pills; drinking plenty of water; avoiding alcohol and sugary foods; and leading a celibate lifestyle may get you more followers, but it will not cure your UTI. Neither will prayer, a positive tarot reading, the female-empowering discography of Taylor Swift, or throwing a packet of cranberry pills and an Evian bottle at the wall in frustration. I’ve tried. The only things that helped me were strong antibiotics (which I soon became resistant to); anaesthetic procedures to widen my urethra (which I will have to undertake every five or so years); and playing a tiny violin for myself in the form of a newspaper article.
As well as the NHS’s inadequate advice, the struggles surrounding UTIs are exacerbated by sexism. The common nickname for a UTI – honeymoon cystitis – links to the puritanical belief that sex should be avoided until after marriage. Women are also often patronised by doctors and told to make sure they’re wiping from front to back after going to the toilet. Perhaps medical professionals should be given the benefit of the doubt, as UTIs can evoke a sense of childhood nostalgia. For example, I thought after I turned six I would no longer wet the bed. Unfortunately, I was struck by a common symptom – needing to pee more often than usual during the night – following a series of ill-advised sexual encounters with a man, my UTI decided to make me wet his bed at four in the morning at the ripe old age of 18, probably to punish his ignorance, as upon hearing that I suffered from chronic UTIs, he immediately panicked and Google Mapped Morley Street SHAC, whilst asking me if they take walk-ins to check for chlamydia. STDs should not be met with panic and disgust, nor should they be conflated with UTIs.
It’s a struggle to think of a mention of UTIs in any high-profile television programme, movie, book or play. This is perhaps because they are considered by many to be – aptly – a piece of piss.
If you are struggling with chronic UTIs – you are not alone. Seek treatment, look after yourself, and PEE AFTER SEX!