Ever slashed your water intake before a long bus ride or flight? Skipped a restroom because it looks like the one from Trainspotting? Worn spandex leggings for 12 hours straight? Then we need to talk.
A urinary tract infection (or UTI for short) is caused by bacteria entering the urinary tract. Women have a shorter urethra (the tube that carries pee out the body) than men, so they’re at greater risk — but that doesn’t mean that men can’t get them too. Normally a little bacteria down there isn’t a problem, but things you frequently experience while traveling — like dehydration, tight clothes, casual sex, and holding in your pee — can all increase your risk of developing an infection. Team that with a clammy climate and all of a sudden, you notice something feels a bit wrong down there. So, you think you have a UTI? Here’s what you need to do.
1. Spot the early warning signs.
The first step to fixing a UTI is spotting it quickly. An early telltale sign is a burning sensation when you pee, which is accompanied by a delightful combination of both needing to go more frequently and not much coming out when you do. This is because inflammation narrows the opening urine passes through, which restricts flow and puts pressure on the receptors that signal when you need to go.
Alongside this, you may also notice stomach pain and have pee that’s cloudy, darker than normal, or funny smelling — although this can also be a sign of dehydration, so if you’re not sure, drink a pint of water. If your pee still doesn’t look right, you probably have a UTI and you’ll need to get treatment.
2. Manage the symptoms yourself (unless you have a penis).
Most UTIs in women don’t require antibiotics and will clear up within a few days if treated properly. If you spot any of the early warning signs, make sure you rest and drink plenty of fluids, which will help flush out the bacteria. Dose up on a pain reliever, but — and this is important — don’t take NSAIDs like aspirin or ibuprofen, which put additional strain on your kidneys. Pay close attention to your symptoms: If you start feeling worse or show no signs of improvement after a day or two, then get in touch with a pharmacist or doctor as soon as you can.
If you have a penis, then UTIs are a little more complicated and you’ll need to skip this stage and go straight to a doctor or pharmacist. And remember that any one of the symptoms — abdominal pain, for example — can be caused by an array of other serious and not-so-serious issues, including food poisoning, trapped wind, gallstones, and appendicitis. If in doubt, see a professional.
4. Ignore natural remedies…except one.
Cranberry juice is the old favorite for clearing UTIs, but there’s little evidence to support the claim. It’s also high in sugar, so chugging gallons of it isn’t only inefficient — it’s bad for you. Others swear by a probiotic called lactobacillus (Yakult being the most well-known brand name in the US) but again, this isn’t scientifically proven. Research suggests only one natural remedy could help fight the problem: a supplement called D-mannose. However, it’s only effective for women, contains a lot of sugar, and can’t be taken if you’re pregnant. If you have some on you (or you’re near a health food shop), try taking this to help your body fight the infection but keep a close eye on your symptoms. If you start feeling worse or show no signs of improvement, you’ll need to move onto the harder stuff.
5. Visit a pharmacy.
If you’re certain you have an early-stage UTI, then head to a pharmacy. These are common in towns and cities around the world and most stay open well into the evening. If you can find a pharmacist who speaks your language, then tell them your symptoms and they should prescribe you some antibiotics or lead you to a doctor. If you think there might be a communication barrier, type your symptoms into Google Translate, then take a screenshot and show it to them. You can also ask for medication yourself — although it’s better to see a doctor. Amoxicillin is the most widely available and commonly used, but if you have a penicillin allergy, you may need to ask for an alternative.
If you’re not certain it’s a UTI, you don’t think the pharmacist understands, or you’ve developed new symptoms, find a clinic or hospital. Remember, it’s better to err on the side of caution abroad. You might have a blockage like a kidney stone, an enlarged prostate, prostatitis (in men), or need to be treated in a hospital with strong antibiotics you get through an IV. While normally harmless, a UTI can become a serious kidney or blood infection if left untreated, so if your symptoms don’t go away or get worse after a few days, then you’ll need to speak to a doctor.
6. Don’t ignore these later-stage UTI symptoms.
If you develop chills and a fever, the infection has moved from your bladder up into your kidneys. This is what’s known as an upper urinary tract infection. The symptoms are the same, whatever your gender. In addition to feeling generally tired and unwell, you may experience blood in your pee, nausea, vomiting, and pain in your lower back and sides, which starts as a dull ache, then develops into a more severe gnawing sensation.
If this sounds like you, then don’t panic — you’re not about to kick the bucket, but you do need antibiotics as soon as possible before it develops into urosepsis which can be life-threatening. Immediately make your way to a doctor or hospital within the next four hours and continue to drink plenty of fluids. If you start to experience extreme fatigue, confusion, a swollen stomach, a rapid heart rate, and/or difficulty breathing, then it’s a medical emergency and you’ll need to visit the hospital immediately.
7. Visit a clinic or hospital.
Some countries have free international travel clinics — just type “free clinic” plus your location into a search engine and if any are available, it should show in your results. You can also get in touch with the nearest embassy or consulate in your destination, which will be able to give you some healthcare recommendations. In addition to this, you’ll need to check the list of providers in your destination that are covered by your insurance via the company’s app or customer service line.
Once you’ve found a doctor or hospital, you’ll have a urine sample taken then be prescribed antibiotics or hooked up to an IV. Remember to mention if you have any allergies, and follow the staff’s advice and finish the course of medication — even if you feel better. If, in the unlikely event you still feel bad after finishing all your meds, head back for round two or some new treatment. So, if possible, stay put until you’re in the all-clear.
8. Reduce your risk.
While you can’t always stop yourself from developing a UTI, there are things you can do to lower your chances — and one of the easiest and most important things to do is stay hydrated. While being dehydrated isn’t a cause in itself, it does mean you’re not flushing out your system as much as you should be, which means bacteria can build up and cause an infection. As well as drinking plenty of liquids, you should also pee regularly to keep your system clean and clear bacteria away.
If you’re traveling on a night bus or in a situation where you know your access to toilets will be limited, make sure you use every stop as an opportunity to go to the bathroom. If possible, talk to the driver to find out when and where you’ll be stopping so you can drink water throughout the journey without worrying about when you’ll get a comfort break. In addition to staying hydrated, swap out baths for showers, avoid using heavily perfumed cleansers, and stay clear of tight leggings and pants that could trap bacteria — especially if you’re hiking or working out.
9. Understand the relationship between UTIs and sex.
UTIs are rarely contagious, so if you have one, don’t worry about passing it on to someone else. The reason they’re associated with sex — especially an encounter with a new person — is because as humans, we host all kinds of bacteria, and when we get close to each other, we pass it on. Most of the time it’s harmless, but if our immune system is low due to fatigue, illness, or stress, we leave ourselves more vulnerable to infections — UTIs being just one. It’s unlikely for a man to catch a UTI from a woman, but females sometimes catch them from men because the infection is typically from bacteria already present in the man’s urinary tract. Men having unprotected anal sex are at an increased risk, however. Whatever your gender, pee straight after sex to flush away any germs that may have gathered around there, and avoid using diaphragms and spermicide. Neither of these prevents STDs anyway, so if you’re with a new partner, always choose a condom as a minimum.
10. Take extra care if you’re a woman or transgender.
If you have a vagina, then there are extra steps you can take to lower your chances of catching a UTI. When you go to the bathroom, always wipe from front to back. You should also wear loose, breathable cotton underwear, especially when you know you’re going to spend a long time sitting down or you won’t get to change as often as you’d like — which may be the case if you’re on a night bus, long train ride, or trek. Change as often as possible (at least once a day) and don’t wear panties to bed, especially in hot climates. Pregnancy and menopause can also cause UTIs due to hormonal changes, so if you fall into either of these two categories, take extra care and pay attention to your body. If you don’t feel like yourself, talk to a professional who can help you treat the infection so you can get back to normal.
While you won’t need to get undressed, your treatment will depend on your anatomy — so you’ll need to be open with your doctor. If you’re transgender and you’re in a place that doesn’t have a great LGBTQ rights record, you can check local rights and legislation on Equaldex so you have a better idea of what to expect before you visit a clinic or hospital. Gynopedia is another great resource full of sexual health information, including where to find trans-friendly doctors in your region.
11. Plan ahead (for next time).
Getting sick or injured is difficult at the best of times, but it’s extra stressful when it happens in an unfamiliar country. Before you head off on any trip, remember these three things: book travel insurance, pack medication, and find out about the healthcare situation in your destination country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a good resource with information on things like traveling with prescription medication and how to get healthcare abroad. If you’re worried about UTIs or you get them regularly, speak to your doctor before you go. They’ll be able to give you a stash of antibiotics for you to take away and offer tips on how to stay healthy while you’re traveling.
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