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Cystitis vs. UTI: Compare causes, symptoms, treatments & more

Cystitis vs. UTI causes | Prevalence | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatments | Risk factors | Prevention | When to see a doctor | FAQs | Resources

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are most common in women, although men and children can get them too. There are three types of UTIs—urethritis (inflammation of the urethra), cystitis (bladder infection/lower UTI), and pyelonephritis (kidney infection/upper UTI). The two conditions are very similar and share many symptoms. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between UTIs and cystitis.

Causes

Cystitis

Most often, cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) is caused by bacteria, but ongoing use of a urinary catheter, sensitivity to chemicals in feminine hygiene products, reaction to a medication or treatment for another illness (radiation or chemotherapy), and other conditions (kidney stones or diabetes) can cause cystitis. Cystitis can be acute or interstitial. Acute cystitis occurs suddenly whereas interstitial cystitis is a long-term condition affecting several layers of bladder tissue.

UTI

Urinary tract infections are caused when microorganisms on the skin or rectum enter the urethra, infecting any part of the urinary system: the urethra, ureters, bladder, or kidneys. Ninety percent of uncomplicated UTIs are caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacterium found in the digestive system, but other microorganisms can cause UTIs. Typically, UTIs occur in the urethra (urethritis) and bladder (cystitis), but bacteria sometimes travels to and infects the kidneys (pyelonephritis), making prompt treatment important. In rare cases, untreated infection can lead to kidney disease or sepsis.

Cystitis vs. UTI causes
Cystitis UTI
  • Bacteria
  • Chemicals from feminine hygiene products
  • Kidney stones 
  • Diabetes
  • Radiation, chemotherapy, and medication
  • Use of a urinary catheter
  • Blockage of the urethra or bladder
  • Pregnancy
  • Bacteria, such as E. coli, staphylococcus, proteus, klebsiella, enterococcus, and pseudomonas
  • Sexually transmitted infections including chlamydia, trachomatis, mycoplasma
  • Trichomonas (parasite)

Prevalence

Cystitis

Recent studies show 10 out of 100 women have uncomplicated cystitis at least once a year, half of whom will have cystitis again within one year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are much more likely to get cystitis than men.

UTI

Research shows 50% to 60% of women will experience at least one UTI during their lifetime. UTIs can also recur. More than a quarter of women experience a recurrent UTI within six months of their first episode. And the prevalence of UTIs increases with age. Though they mostly occur in women, men and children are also at risk. 

Cystitis vs. UTI prevalence
Cystitis UTI
  • Affects more women than men
  • 10% of women are affected per year
  • 50% of women who are diagnosed with cystitis will experience recurrent cystitis
  • Affects more women than men
  • 50%-60% of women have at least one during their lifetime
  • 20% of women older than 65 experience UTIs compared to 11% of women overall
  • 27% of women have a recurrent UTI within 6 months of their first UTI

Symptoms

There is some overlap between urinary symptoms of cystitis and UTIs, including blood in urine, frequent or painful urination (dysuria), persistent urge to urinate but with little output, pelvic pressure, and pain in the lower abdomen.

Cystitis

Cystitis can cause problems urinating and cause you to feel unwell overall. Many cases are mild and improve on their own over a few days, but be sure to see your provider if your symptoms are severe or they’re not improving. 

UTI

Symptoms of complicated UTIs not seen with cystitis include fever or back and side pain, both indicative of a kidney infection (pyelonephritis).

Cystitis vs. UTI symptoms
Cystitis UTI
  • Blood in the urine
  • Frequent, painful urination
  • Pelvic pressure, lower abdominal pain
  • General feeling of malaise 
  • Dark, cloudy, foul-smelling urine
  • Strong, persistent need to urinate with little output
  • The need to urinate at night
  • Blood in the urine
  • Frequent, painful urination
  • Pelvic pressure, lower abdominal pain
  • General feeling of malaise 
  • Dark, cloudy, foul-smelling urine
  • Strong, persistent need to urinate with little output
  • The need to urinate at night
  • Pain in the lower back or sides (kidney)
  • Fever/chills
  • Incontinence 
  • Vomiting

Diagnosis

Cystitis

If you’re experiencing symptoms of cystitis, a urinalysis will be conducted to examine a sample of your urine for bacteria. A cystoscopy, a procedure using a thin tube with a camera to examine the urinary tract, or imaging (X-ray, ultrasound, CT, or MRI) may be conducted by a urologist to identify possible causes of bladder inflammation and bladder pain. 

UTI

Your healthcare provider will ask about symptoms, conduct a physical examination, and order a simple urinalysis to look for white blood cells (pus), red blood cells (blood), and bacteria in a sample of your urine. The presence of these cells indicates an infection. Bacteria from a urine sample are typically grown in a lab to identify the source of the UTI and determine the best course of treatment. For recurring UTIs, a CT scan or MRI may be ordered to identify abnormalities to the urinary tract, or your doctor may conduct a cystoscopy, evaluating the bladder and urinary tract using a small flexible cystoscope.

Cystitis vs. UTI diagnosis
Cystitis UTI
  • Urinalysis
  • X-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI for lab images of the urinary tract
  • Cystoscopy
  • Urinalysis 
  • Urine culture
  • CT scan or MRI for lab images of the urinary tract
  • Cystoscopy

Treatments

Cystitis

Mild cases of noninfectious cystitis can be treated at home, but you should see your general practitioner if symptoms do not improve within a few days. Self-help measures to manage symptoms include drinking plenty of water, avoiding caffeine and citrus foods, abstaining from sex, and drinking unsweetened cranberry juice. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, apply a heating pad, and don’t hold your urine. Seek medical advice for unresolved cases of cystitis, which usually require a course of antibiotics. Medications often used for cystitis include:

UTI

The same home remedies for cystitis can be helpful for UTIs. It can be helpful to increase your intake of vitamin C and probiotics in order to support the immune system and urinary tract health. Pay close attention to symptoms, as severe bacterial infections of the bladder or kidneys may need to be treated with intravenous antibiotics in a hospital. Because most UTIs are caused by bacterial pathogens, antibiotics are usually warranted to eradicate the infection. Your healthcare provider may recommend one of the cystitis medications above, or prescribe a course of one of these antibiotics based on the type of bacteria present:

Cystitis vs. UTI treatments
Cystitis UTI
  • Take OTC pain relievers for symptom relief
  • Take antibiotics as prescribed
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and citrus foods
  • Drink unsweetened cranberry juice
  • Take OTC pain relievers for symptom relief
  • Take antibiotics as prescribed
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and citrus foods
  • Drink unsweetened cranberry juice
  • Supplement with vitamin C and probiotics

RELATED: What are probiotics?

Risk factors

Cystitis

Females are more likely to contract cystitis than males. Older adults are also more likely to get cystitis because the bladder may not empty completely due to other health conditions such as an enlarged prostate or bladder prolapse.

UTI

UTIs are far more common in women than in men because their urethras are shorter and closer to the rectum; therefore, bacteria can enter the urinary tract and travel to the bladder more easily. People with diabetes are also more likely to experience UTIs because their urine has higher sugar levels—an environment where bacteria grow more easily. Hormonal changes during pregnancy make urine output slower and create an environment conducive to bacterial growth. During menopause, the body produces less estrogen, a factor that increases the risk of UTIs.

Cystitis vs. UTI risk factors
Cystitis UTI
  • Recent or recurrent UTIs
  • Being sexually active
  • Use of spermicidal contraceptives
  • Irritants from feminine hygiene products (douches, powders, sprays)
  • Using a catheter
  • Chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • Enlarged prostate in men
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney stones
  • HIV
  • Spinal injury
  • Congenital blockages
  • Immunocompromised individuals
  • Older individuals
  • Having had a UTI or urethritis in the past
  • Frequent sexual activity or a new sexual partner
  • Bacterial changes from menopause or spermicidal contraception
  • Pregnancy
  • Children and adults older than 30 are at increased risk
  • Improper hygiene, more common in female children
  • Waiting too long to urinate
  • Not drinking enough water

Prevention

Cystitis

While there’s no proven way to prevent cystitis, making lifestyle modifications can go a long way in minimizing symptoms and infection risk. Lifestyle changes include good genital hygiene, urinating after sexual intercourse, and taking showers instead of baths.

UTI

The same preventive measures for cystitis also apply to UTIs. To prevent UTIs from occurring, be sure to practice good hygiene: always wipe from front to back and avoid the use of genital douches, powders, and sprays. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, never hold your urine for extended periods of time, and be sure to urinate after having sex. Unsweetened cranberry juice may help prevent the bacteria E. Coli from attaching to the bladder wall. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic to be taken after sex in cases of recurring UTIs.

How to prevent cystitis vs. UTI 
Cystitis UTI
  • Practice good genital hygiene (wipe from front to back)
  • Urinate after sexual intercourse
  • Avoid feminine hygiene products with possible irritants (douches, powders, sprays) and spermicides
  • Get enough sleep
  • Avoid stress
  • Take showers rather than baths
  • Practice good genital hygiene (wipe from front to back)
  • Urinate after sexual intercourse
  • Avoid feminine hygiene products with possible irritants (douches, powders, sprays) and spermicides
  • Drink unsweetened cranberry juice
  • Stay hydrated

When to see a healthcare provider for cystitis or UTI

Young children and men should see a healthcare provider when experiencing symptoms of a UTI or cystitis to rule out other conditions because both conditions can be more serious among these groups. 

For women experiencing symptoms of a UTI lasting longer than three days, see a healthcare provider to get a diagnosis and proper treatment. Because severe cases may lead to more serious infections of the bladder or kidney that need to be treated in a hospital setting, it’s important to seek treatment as early as possible. Any of the following symptoms warrant a medical provider’s advice: 

  • Painful, burning/ stinging urination
  • An urgent need to pee frequently but in small amounts
  • Bloody, dark, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine
  • Pain in the bladder or surrounding areas
  • Fever/chills

Discuss your symptoms in detail with your healthcare provider, seeking their advice regarding diagnostic testing to rule out other diseases.

Frequently asked questions about cystitis and UTI

What is the difference between cystitis and UTI?

A UTI can occur in any part of the urinary tract: the urethra, ureters, kidneys, or bladder. If the infection stays in the urethra, it’s considered urethritis. The urethra is a tube that allows the body to expel urine and is connected to the bladder. If the infection occurs in the lower urinary tract and bladder, it’s considered cystitis. The ureters, two narrow tubes, drain urine from the kidneys into the bladder. Kidneys are responsible for removing waste and excess water from the body. If the infection moves to the upper urinary tract and kidneys, it’s considered pyelonephritis.

Can a UTI cause cystitis?

While not all urinary tract infections lead to cystitis, it is possible for untreated UTIs to spread to the bladder. A bladder infection causing cystitis is a specific type of urinary tract infection that often occurs when bacteria from another part of the urinary tract enter the bladder. To prevent this from occurring, see your healthcare provider to obtain treatment for a UTI promptly.

What could be mistaken for a UTI?

There are several conditions whose symptoms mimic UTIs. Sexually transmitted infections (gonorrhea, chlamydia, and mycoplasma) cause symptoms also common in UTIs, such as painful urination and discharge. 

Vaginitis, caused by bacteria or yeast, can result in a burning sensation when urinating and similar discomfort that may mimic a UTI. 

Often mistaken for a UTI, interstitial cystitis (IC), or painful bladder condition, is a chronic condition affecting the bladder that does not improve with antibiotic treatment. Symptoms of IC include increased urgency and more frequent urination as well as pain in the pelvic area. 

Other conditions to rule out are overactive bladder, pregnancy, prostatitis, diabetes, cancer, and kidney stones. 

What is the fastest way to get rid of cystitis?

If symptoms are severe or they do not improve within three days, it’s important to see your healthcare provider. Though self-help measures may serve to relieve symptoms, antibiotics are the fastest and most effective way to cure cystitis.

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