I remember the last piece of advice my high school journalism teacher gave me: always pee before and after sex. I’ve long since forgotten the probably awkward context of that conversation, but after last semester, I will always heed her words.

It was around the time of study days, just after seeing my long-distance boyfriend over Thanksgiving break to, you know, passionately catch up. Everything was going well for a bit, but when I got back to campus, I started feeling off.

I was coming down from a gnarly cold, so the sudden waves of fatigue I felt seemed explainable. Slightly abnormal were the stabbing pains in my lower left side and back. Weirder still were the sudden chills and fever that overtook me one day at work. As much as I didn’t want to admit it — what with finals on the horizon and so many papers to write — something was most definitely wrong.

I finally made an appointment at the Student Health Center for the next morning and made the trek across campus in the December chill. Upon reaching the building and finally sitting down in the exam room, I passed out for the first time in my life.

The nurses acted quickly, and soon I found myself being checked into Georgetown Hospital — another first for me, since I’ve never even broken a bone before. I had to answer the usual slew of questions over and over (yes, I drink; no, I don’t smoke; yes, I’ve been sexually active in the past month), and it became increasingly clear to the doctors that I had a urinary tract infection that had spread from my bladder to my kidneys. The symptoms all matched up: painful urination and difficulty peeing were the first signs of the UTI, then body pains and fever as it spread.

As a sexually active woman, I could always be at risk for a UTI, a fact which I’d never given serious thought to before. As the doctors explained, UTIs are caused when certain bacteria from the vagina gets into the urethra, so being sexually active greatly increases the risk of infection. Since women have shorter urethras than men, they are more likely to get a UTI as well — one in five women will experience a UTI in their lifetime.

What’s worse, I’d forgotten the most important preventative measure — I hadn’t peed after sex. As weird as it sounds, urinating helps clear out the urethra and prevents it from being infected, so if you hold it in for too long — especially after having sex — you are increasing your risk of a UTI. This holds for guys as well, although they are significantly less at risk. Drinking cranberry juice is one way to alleviate symptoms after you’ve already gotten a UTI, but your best bet should really be prevention.

Once a UTI gets to a certain point — as mine did — the symptoms won’t just go away on their own. In the end, I was forced to spend the night in the hospital with an IV drip giving me hydration and antibiotics. Plus, I’ve never had to give so many urine samples in my life. And needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to do my studying for finals afflicted by pain and fatigue in a hospital bed.

Calling my mother from the hospital was, well, awkward. Obviously, she was concerned for my health, but she’s one of those moms who really does not want to know what I’m up to whenever sex is concerned.

Calling my boyfriend to tell him what had happened was mercifully much less uncomfortable. Talking about what was happening to me didn’t weird him out as much as might be expected, and he was more focused on making sure I was ok. Now, he’s good about reminding me to take my post-sex pee, which is such a simple habit that can prevent this problem from ever happening again.

Before last semester, I hadn’t thought UTIs were a big deal. I thought they just made peeing painful for a while, and then they went away on their own. Sometimes, sure, that’s the case. But other times, UTIs can evolve into serious conditions that will not magically disappear and that require immediate medical treatment.

So, I guess the moral of the story is this: Listen to your elders, listen to your own body, and for the love of all that is holy, please pee before and after sex.

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