Basic biology dictates that your anus is located pretty freaking close to your vagina. This anatomical setup is kind of ill-conceived.
If given a chance, some of the bacteria from your backside can throw a wrench into the health of your vagina and urethra (the tube through which you expel pee).
“The rectum and the anus have a lot of bacteria that are normal for the bowel to have but are not normal for other organs to be exposed to,” Sara Twogood, M.D., assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Keck Medicine USC, tells SELF.
Take E. coli, for example. Hearing the name of this bacteria might make you shudder, given that it can cause pretty nasty cases of foodborne illness. But many strains of E. coli exist harmlessly in your gastrointestinal tract, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains. This bacteria does, however, have the potential to cause health problems elsewhere, like your vagina and urethra.
You might theoretically know that “always wipe front-to-back” should be drilled into your brain as a basic tenet of good personal hygiene, right alongside chores like brushing your teeth every morning and night and taking off your makeup before bed. But if you don’t understand why wiping front-to-back is so important, it can be easy to shrug off this advice and wipe however you damn well please. It’s actually crucial that you wipe front-to-back each and every time you go to the bathroom. Here’s why.
Wiping front-to-back helps your butt bacteria stay where it should
While it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of GI bacteria traveling forward from your anus, you can significantly reduce this possibility by not giving it a free ride. “Wiping front-to-back minimizes the risk of spreading bacteria,” Audra Williams, M.D., clinical instructor and ob/gyn at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System, tells SELF. Conversely, “If you wipe back-to-front, you could actually move bacteria from the GI tract to your vaginal area and also to your urethra,” Clara Paik, M.D., chief of the division of gynecologic specialties and clinic medical director at UC Davis Medical Center, tells SELF.
GI bacteria can cause vaginal infections
Bacteria from your GI system can disrupt your vagina’s native microbiome of microorganisms like Lactobacillus, which helps to maintain a healthy, acidic vaginal environment, Dr. Paik says. If GI bacteria is able to tamper with the balance of your vaginal flora, it could lead to an infection.
For example, bacterial vaginosis (BV) – the most common vaginal infection among people with vaginas aged 15 to 44, per the CDC – occurs when there is an overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria in the vagina. Not having enough Lactobacillus bacteria is a clear risk factor for BV, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Symptoms of BV include white or gray smelly discharge, itching, and burning when urinating, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Your primary care physician or ob/gyn can examine you and take a sample of your discharge to confirm if there is an infection. Treatment for bacterial vaginosis involves antibiotics taken orally and/or vaginally, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Although BV is not serious, if left untreated it can make you more susceptible to health issues such as sexually transmitted infections and pelvic inflammatory disease (when bacteria infects the reproductive organs), according to the Mayo Clinic. While treatment is of the essence, so is doing everything you can to prevent this common infection in the first place – like wiping front-to-back.
Bacteria from your GI system can also cause a urinary tract infection.
Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria get into the urinary tract via the urethra and multiply in the urethra, bladder, or kidneys, according to the Mayo Clinic. Conveniently, the most frequent bacterial culprits of UTIs, including E. coli, are found in the GI tract.
“Women are already more susceptible to urinary tract infections because our urethra is in close proximity to the vagina and [anus],” Dr. Williams says. That makes it pretty simple for GI bacteria to cause an urge to pee all the time, cloudy or strong-smelling urine, and other characteristic symptoms of a dreaded UTI.
While those symptoms can happen with any kind of UTI, sometimes your symptoms can depend on which part of your urinary tract is infected, according to the Mayo Clinic. An infection of the urethra itself (urethritis) can cause discharge and burning with urination. A bladder infection (cystitis) can lead to frequent, uncomfortable urination, bloody urine, and lower stomach pain or pressure. The least common type of UTI, a kidney infection (acute pyelonephritis), can cause flank pain, fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. Untreated kidney infections can be life-threatening, which is why it’s so important to see a doctor as soon as you think you have a UTI.
The good news is that a doctor can diagnose a UTI with several different lab tests, including a urinalysis, according to the Mayo Clinic. Once diagnosed, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to knock out your UTI.
While there are no surefire ways to prevent these kinds of infections, the verdict is clear: Wiping front-to-back is an easy precaution that’s very much worth taking.