If you’ve experienced even one urinary tract infection you’d probably do almost anything to avoid another. Painful urination and feeling the need to pee every ten minutes is uniquely miserable, though not unusual — nearly half of women get at least one UTI in their lifetime, and the dreaded infections are the most common kind of bacterial infection globally.
Almost one-third of women who get a UTI will get a second one within six months, and an unlucky subset of women experience recurrent UTIs, defined as more than two in six months or more than three in a year. Grrrr.
Sex, hormones, and even your genes may make you prone to UTIs. The good news? The pesky infections are treatable — and preventable — with an assist from your healthcare provider and good self-care.
What causes UTIs?
UTIs occur when bacteria slide up your urethra (where you pee from) and flourish there, infecting your bladder and even your kidneys if left untreated. The invasive bacteria E. coli is to blame for the vast majority of UTIs. Women who experience UTIs aren’t less clean than women who don’t, but factors like sexual activity, hormones, and genetic disposition can make you more susceptible to this type of infection. We’re focused on women here, because people without penises are far more prone to UTIs due to shorter urethras that provide bacteria with an ideal onramp to cause an infection.
Several things increase your risk for recurrent UTIs (which doctors define as having three or more UTIs in a year), such as frequent sex, new sex partners, and diabetes. Your anatomy also may make you more prone to getting UTIs if your urethra and anus are unusually close together. There’s even a genetic link, so if your mother suffered from frequent UTIs, you may too.
How are UTIs treated?
Talk to your healthcare provider to confirm that you have a UTI and make sure the strain of bacteria causing your infection isn’t resistant to any antibiotics. Your provider will typically prescribe three to 10 days of antibiotics.
Good self-care may banish your UTI more quickly. Drink plenty of water until your pee is almost colorless to help to flush out your bladder, advises Dr. Payal Bhandari, of Uqora, which makes UTI prevention supplements. She also suggests taking a supplement containing magnesium citrate, which may relax your bladder muscles to help clear away the infection.
How can I avoid getting UTIs?
If you’ve had a UTI recently or are prone to them, there are few steps you can take to reduce your chances of getting another one. “Number one is hydration. You’ve got to keep flushing out the kidneys and flushing out the bladder,” says Dr. Bhandari. When you’re drinking all of that water you’ll need to urinate often, which is another crucial part of UTI prevention. Be sure to pee at least every 3 or 4 hours, and always make yourself pee after sex to help flush out any bacteria that may have snuck up your urethra while you were doing it. After you use the toilet always wipe from front to back to keep bacteria away from your urinary tract.
Every woman should give a hard pass to vaginal hygiene products like douches, powders, and sprays, and this is extra-true if you’re UTI-prone. “Cleaning” products can upset your vagina’s delicate bacterial balance, killing good bacteria and allowing bad bacteria like E. Coli to multiply and infect your urinary tract. And if you’re really UTI-prone you might want to avoid baths and take showers instead.
Taking vitamin C also may lower your risk of getting a UTI, but there’s less evidence in support of drinking cranberry juice — an often-repeated home remedy. Science hasn’t clearly shown that downing massive amounts of the fruit juice actually helps (and it may increase your risk of kidney stones). There’s also no evidence that probiotics prevent UTIs, although taking a probiotic containing Lactobacillus couldn’t hurt (especially if you end up taking antibiotics, which will wipe out the good bacteria along with your infection).
Does birth control increase UTI risk?
Using a spermicide, spermicide-coated condoms, a diaphragm, or a cervical cap can affect your UTI risk by disrupting the delicate balance of good bacteria (lactobacilli) in your vag. If you think spermicide or a barrier method might be to blame for your UTIs, consider chatting with a Nurx provider about birth control alternatives.
You might be worried that birth control pills are somehow linked to chronic UTIs. When researchers in The Journal of Infectious Diseases looked into this, they found taking the pill made very little difference in whether women got UTIs or not.
However, science does confirm the (unsurprising) fact that women on birth control have more sex. Having sex IS directly related to UTIs — so it makes sense that taking birth control is indirectly linked to more infections. You may feel like you’re getting tons of UTIs on the pill, but maybe you’re also having more sex than you used to.
Still, the bottom line is it’s always best to listen to your body. If you started getting back-to-back UTIs around the time you went on the pill, chat with a Nurx provider about switching to a different birth control method.
Are women more vulnerable to UTIs at different times of the month?
Low estrogen may be linked to UTIs. Estrogen is a crucial hormone that rises and falls during your menstrual cycle, and is particularly low during your period and right after. One of estrogen’s jobs is helping Lactobacilli (the good bacteria) flourish, which wards off infection. So if you get busy once your flow stops — when your estrogen level is low — that might help explain why UTIs seem to strike at certain times of the month.
UTIs are annoying to say the least — but needn’t rule your life. Take preventive steps and, if UTIs remain an ongoing problem, work with a medical provider to find a solution that works for you.
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