“Remember to wipe front to back.” “Always pee after having sex.” “Drink lots of cranberry juice!” You’ve probably heard all of these tips before. But what are people trying to help you prevent? The answer is simple: urinary tract infections (UTIs).
A UTI is an infection anywhere in your urinary tract. The urinary tract is made up of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra, all of which work together to make and store urine and then remove it from the body. The urinary system is designed to keep out fungi, viruses, and bacteria. However, sometimes the body’s defenses fail and bacteria enter the urinary tract and cause an infection.
Women are more likely to get UTIs than men are: about half of women will get a UTI at some point in their life. The reason for this has to do with biology. First, a woman’s urethra is much closer to her anus than a man’s is, which makes it easier for bacteria to reach her urethra. Second, once the bacteria is at a woman’s urethra, it has easier access into the bladder as a woman’s urethra is much shorter than a man’s. There are many different ways bacteria can get to the urethra. Wiping from back to front, waiting too long to pass urine, having sex, and having a catheter can all enable bacteria to get to the urethra.
The most common symptoms of UTIs are a strong, persistent urge to urinate, passing frequent and small amounts of urine, stinging or burning when you urinate, pressure in your back or lower abdomen, and urine that smells bad or is milky, cloudy or reddish in color. UTIs are treated easily with antibiotics and most people begin to feel better within one or two days. However, if you do not get treated for a UTI, the infection can spread to your kidneys and cause serious problems in the rest of your body.
Around 1 in 5 women experience a second UTI and some women get three or more urinary tract infections per year. This is common as some women are more prone to these infections due to genetic predispositions or abnormalities in the structure of the urinary tract. If you suffer from chronic UTIs, ask your doctor about a treatment plan.
In regards to widely held belief that drinking cranberry juice can prevent and treat UTIs, the research is conflicting. While there is a an active ingredient in cranberries, that helps prevent bacteria from attaching to the wall of the bladder, studies show that cranberry juice and other cranberry supplements do not contain enough of this ingredient to actually prevent the bacteria from sticking. Talk to your doctor before using cranberry juice as a treatment for a urinary tract infection.
Take these steps to reduce your risk of UTIs:
- Urinate when you need to – don’t hold it
- Wipe from front to back
- Drink plenty of water every day and after sex
- Urinate after sex
- Avoid douches and feminine hygiene sprays
- If you use a diaphragm or spermicidal jelly for birth control, both of which can increase bacteria growth, consider switching to another method