How stress and anxiety can play a role in UTIs

Here's how you can avoid a painful, stress-induced infection.
Written by
Kate Evans
Reviewed by
Last updated on
June 3, 2024
min read
How Stress and Anxiety Can Play a Role in UTIs | Kin Fertility
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Chances are we've all experienced the pain and irritation of a urinary tract infection (UTI).

For some, UTIs can seem to occur more frequently, while others may only experience it once in their lifetime. There are many factors that play a role in developing a UTI and the good news is, a pesky UTI is treatable with medication.

But, what role does stress play in a urinary tract infection? While there is no direct research that states that high stress will outright cause a UTI, it could increase some of your symptoms, making it more uncomfortable to deal with.

Understanding the connection between a stress-induced UTI can help us better avoid one. Let's dive in.

What is a urinary tract infection?

A urinary tract infection — sometimes referred to as a bladder infection — is an infection of any of the organs in the urinary system [1].

Most infections tend to occur in the lower urinary tract: the urethra and the bladder, which is why it can be most uncomfortable when you urinate.

Women are more likely to develop a UTI than men, and the symptoms include:

  • Cloudy urine
  • A burning sensation when urinating
  • A strong need to urinate
  • Urine that is red or pink, indicating blood in your urine.

Though they're common and painful, there are a few successful treatment options such as antibiotics. You can also do things to avoid getting a UTI in the first place.

When it comes to a urinary tract infection, you want to act relatively quickly. Not just to avoid any discomfort, but to also prevent the infection from spreading to your kidneys.

Can stress and anxiety cause UTIs?

When you're experiencing stress or anxiety, your immune system is impacted, meaning you're more susceptible to infections in general. A urinary tract infection is therefore more likely to occur when you're in this vulnerable mental, emotional and physical state.

While many people wonder whether stress can cause a UTI or mimic UTI symptoms, it's important to know that it doesn't directly cause the infection.

But, feeling stressed can contribute to increased levels of cortisol which impacts the immune system. A weakened immune system means you might get a UTI more easily.

Similarly, high-stress levels can prevent you from looking after yourself, and poor hygiene habits can lead to infection.

Read on for how stress can impact your overall health and in turn, UTIs.

Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system

The activation of your sympathetic nervous system — which often happens in response to danger or stress — can trigger a few things to occur in the body [2].

Your nervous system communicates with your immune system and we need the former to tell the latter to fight infections and stress can negatively impact this process — especially if it's long-term or chronic stress [3].

Immune functions can also be impacted by sympathetic nervous system activation — though more research is needed in this area — meaning that the body can struggle to treat an infection.

Stress can modulate your perception of pain

We have built-in strategies to deal with stressors, which is why we can function as humans even under intense psychological stress — to some degree.

Stress can configure how we experience pain as it modules our pain perception [4].

The responses to stress include:

  • Behavioural changes
  • Endocrine responses
  • Neural responses
  • Coping strategies.

When we experience pain, such as dealing with a urinary tract infection, we might not be able to feel or notice the symptoms of the infection. This can be dangerous as the body is trying to tell you something through pain symptoms but this can be dulled if under great stress.

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It weakens the defence in your immune system

Lower urinary tract symptoms will start to show when your immune system is weakened. And, stress — environmental stress or chronic stress — can seriously impact the immune system's ability to stave off infections.

Reducing stress will allow your immune system to start working properly again, meaning it can defend against a bacterial infection such as a UTI, and promote urinary health.

What are the causes of UTIs?

A microbe (or microbes) entering the urinary tract can cause a UTI. Bacterial infection is the most common cause of urinary tract infections but fungi can also contaminate the urinary tract.

Bacteria such as E.coli, which lives in the bowel can also cause a UTI and can be linked to poor hygiene [5].

Other common causes of a UTI are:

  • Sex: Sex can cause the movement of bacteria from the bowel to the urinary tract, which can lead to a UTI. This is why peeing before and directly after sex is recommended to clear the urinary tract.
  • Constipation: This makes it harder to empty your bladder fully, meaning bacteria can get trapped, grow and cause an infection.
  • Dehydration: Staying hydrated will help flush out bacteria from your body. If you're not urinating frequently, the bacteria can stay inside your urinary system and multiply.
  • Birth control: A change in your contraception can cause a hormonal change. This can then affect the bacteria in your vaginal area, increasing the chances of a UTI. A diaphragm or the use of spermicides could also contribute to poor urinary health.
  • Feminine products: Regularly changing your sanitary items can help prevent UTIs and urinary tract symptoms. Dirty tampons and pads allow bacteria to grow too easily. And, try to opt for cotton underwear as it prevents excess moisture.

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How can I prevent a stress-induced UTI?

It's important that we learn how to manage stress in order to avoid it impacting our body's function for the worse.

Stress is a common occurrence in modern-day life, so it would be hard to say to completely avoid it. But, learning to manage stress is incredibly important for your overall health.

Ways to manage stress can include:

You want to reduce the risk factors that come with stress so find out what works for you, and what relaxes you.

What are the treatment options for UTIs?

When dealing with infections in your urinary tract, there are a few treatments you can do. We recommend seeing a healthcare professional, especially if you are experiencing lower urinary tract symptoms that point to an infection frequently.

If this is the case, a healthcare professional will be able to prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection and relieve your urinary tract symptoms [6].

Ensuring that your vaginal flora is balanced with the right amount of bacteria is also critical and taking a daily vaginal probiotic could be helpful.

To avoid UTIs, stay hydrated, try drinking cranberry juice, opt for cotton underwear, avoid irritating feminine hygiene products and practice cleanliness.

And, if you're dealing with stress frequently, a healthcare professional can guide you through your stress symptoms and help you to alleviate the pressure of it.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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