Amidst the hustle of modern life, a secret ailment silently afflicts millions. About 60 percent of women and 14 percent of men will have at least one urinary tract infection (UTI) during their lifetime. The impact of a UTI is often underestimated — and its consequences brushed aside. To add to the discomfort, UTIs still carry stigma. But for those who have faced the burning urgency, the discomfort and the nagging fear, the words ‘urinary tract infection’ carry a weight that can’t be ignored. Even though it may seem like a minor issue, if left untreated it can blossom into something major.
What it feels like to have a UTI
When you have a UTI, the lining of the bladder and urethra become red and irritated, similar to your throat when you have a cold. The irritation can cause pain in your lower abdomen, pelvic area and even lower back. In the midst of a UTI, you usually you feel like urinating more often. Burning when urinating is the most common symptom. You may feel a strong urge or need to urinate, but only produce a few drops. When the bladder is inflamed, it makes you feel like you have to urinate, even when you don’t have much urine in your bladder. At times, you may leak a little urine. You may also discover your urine smells bad and is cloudy.
What causes UTIs?
In most cases UTIs, known as bacterial cystitis, are only loosely correlated with everyday personal habits. When it comes to UTIs, it is a case of anatomy being destiny. The main reason UTIs are more common in women is that they have shorter urethras than men, which makes it easy for bacteria to reach the urinary tract. The vast majority of U.T.I. cases are caused by E. coli bacteria, which lives in the gut but can migrate from the anus to the urethra.
Since a UTI is painful and unpleasant, you might want to adopt some commonsense ways to avoid contracting them.
Eight ways to prevent UTIs
1. Take precautions before and after sex
Because intercourse can transfer bacteria from the bowel or vaginal cavity into the urethra, many women can get UTIs after having sex. To lower your risk, pee within 30 minutes before and after being sexually active. If you use lubricant during sex, make sure it’s water-based (they cause less damage to normal vaginal bacteria). You should also avoid spermicide if you have frequent UTIs.
It’s also a best practice to gently wash your genital area—and your hands—before sex. This can help keep the area clean and reduce the chance of bacteria spreading to your urethra.
2. Nurture a healthy vaginal microbiome
The vagina naturally contains more than 50 different microbes that help keep the vagina healthy and the pH level balanced. Scented feminine products can disrupt this balance, allowing harmful bacteria to overgrow. This can result in UTIs, vaginosis and candida. Avoid using anything with a scent, such as scented pads or tampons, scented powders and deodorant sprays. Bath oils, soaps, and bubble baths can also irritate the genital area and create imbalances in vaginal bacteria.
(Read more about maintaining a healthy vaginal microbiome.)
3. Wipe front to back
Because the rectum is a primary reservoir of E.coli bacteria, wipe from front to back after going to the bathroom. This reduces the likelihood of transferring E.coli from the anus to the urethra. This precaution becomes even more critical when experiencing diarrhea, which can potentially heightening the risk of E.coli transmission to the urethra.
4. Stay hydrated
Adequate hydration encourages urination, which is a good thing. It helps flush bacteria and other potentially harmful microorganisms out of the urinary tract before they can cause an infection. Diluting the urine through increased fluid intake makes the urinary system less susceptible to bacteria overgrowth.
5. Don’t hold your pee
On the flip side, if you hold in urine for extended periods, any bacteria present in your urinary tract can multiply. Stagnant urine can create an environment conducive to infection. This can happen especially if you have residual urine that hasn’t been expelled during previous urination.
6. Incorporate cranberries into your diet
Cranberries contain compounds called proanthocyanidins, which are thought to have potential benefits for urinary tract health. These compounds may help prevent bacteria, particularly E. coli, from adhering to the urinary tract lining. By interfering with unwanted bacterial cling, cranberries may reduce the risk of infection.
It’s not a magic bullet, though. The evidence supporting the use of cranberries for UTI prevention is inconclusive. Studies suggest that to be effective, cranberry products need to contain a sufficient concentration of proanthocyanidins. Grocery store cranberry juice doesn’t prevent a UTI. However, cranberry concentrate supplements, consumed consistently, may help promote a healthy urinary tract.†
7. Estrogen replacement therapy
Estrogen plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of the urogenital tissues, including the lining of the urinary tract. Menopause decreases estrogen levels, which may disrupt the bacterial balance of the vagina and make the urinary tract more prone to infection. Estrogen replacement therapy, such as a low-dose vaginal cream, can help restore this balance.
8. Keep diabetes under control
Elevated blood sugar levels in diabetes can lead to the presence of glucose (sugar) in the urine, a condition known as glucosuria. This can create an environment that proliferates bacterial growth. Bacteria, especially E. coli, are attracted to the sugar and it is a huge ally for microbes in the urinary tract.
Most UTIs, more common females than males, require treatment with antibiotics. When certain populations, such as males or diabetics or catheter users, have a UTI, the infection is usually considered to be complicated. Delaying treatment of complicated UTIs can lead to complications, such as a kidney infection or sepsis. If you think you have a UTI, visit a doctor or healthcare professional for treatment.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.