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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are some of the most common infections worldwide. You might have even had one yourself. They’re annoying, painful, and can cause serious problems if left untreated.
While home remedies haven’t been proven to treat urinary tract infections, you might be wondering if there’s anything you can do to prevent UTIs? Can diet play a role in UTIs?
Can what you eat impact a UTI?
The short answer is probably. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, no research consistently links certain foods or drinks to bladder inflammation. However, some patients do report the worsening of symptoms after consuming certain foods.
Consider keeping a food diary that logs what you eat and any changes in symptoms to monitor your health, or consulting with a registered dietitian to help you build a healthy diet for your bladder and urinary system.
Germs from your digestive tract are the most common cause of UTIs. Some researchers believe that dietary factors may impact your risk of getting a UTI by affecting the natural bacteria that live inside and outside your body (Kontiokari, 2003). Many cases tend to be caused by a germ called Escherichia coli (E. coli), which commonly hangs out near your rectum or along your digestive tract in typically safe and unharmful populations (Flores-Mireles, 2015).
You develop a UTI when germs like E. coli get into your urinary tract, perhaps through unhygienic wiping or sexual activity (Lema, 2018). Recent studies suggest that the E. coli that cause UTIs may be different from the intestinal or beneficial populations. These UTI-causing E. coli live on the outside and are called extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC) (Poolman, 2016).
A recent study looked at a vegetarian Taiwanese Buddhist population and found that a vegetarian diet was associated with a 16% lower risk of UTIs. A vegetarian diet leads to different intestinal microbiomes (good bacteria that naturally live inside you) than non-vegetarians. The high-fiber content decreases your intestinal pH, which could prevent the growth of UTI and other harmful bacteria (Chen, 2020). However, more research in this area is needed.
What should you avoid consuming when you have a UTI?
If you have a UTI, your healthcare provider may encourage you to cut down on certain foods and drinks. Here are a few things they may suggest that you avoid.
Caffeine is scientifically classified as a psychoactive drug. It is, after all, a stimulant that targets the central nervous system. Caffeine can cause urinary incontinence, which is a problem with bladder and sphincter control that leads to uncontrolled leaking of urine. Incontinence can affect you at any age and can be temporary. Normal bladder function plays a crucial role in preventing UTIs, and temporary incontinence can lead to a UTI (AUA, 2020).
While it may be tempting to believe that alcohol will kill all the harmful bacteria in your body, that is simply not true. Your body breaks down alcohol before it would have the chance to do that. Alcohol irritates your bladder and should be avoided if you have a UTI (AUA, 2020).
Many UTI-causing bacteria thrive in acidic environments. One study found that urine samples from UTI patients had varying pH levels, depending on the bacteria (Lai, 2019). You may want to avoid consuming foods that could impact the pH in your body to prevent harmful bacterial growth. Your doctor may even suggest taking an antacid with meals to reduce the amount of acid that gets into the urine (NIDDK, 2017).
While spices are known for their antioxidant and alternative medical properties, you might want to cut back on spicy food if you have an infection. Some people find that spicy food irritates their bladder. Spicy foods could trigger or worsen symptoms of a bladder infection (NIDDK, 2017).
What foods should you eat?
Cranberry juice is a popular at-home remedy for UTIs. Cranberry juice cannot treat a UTI, and you should always see a healthcare provider if you suspect you have a UTI.
However, some researchers do believe that cranberries may help with UTIs because the fruit has a substance that does not allow bacteria to stick to the bladder wall. It’s called proanthocyanidin. and it makes it hard for the germs to settle down and colonize. When consuming cranberry juice, ensure that it is juice and not concentrate, as sugary drinks will not do much for your UTI (Jepson, 2012).
The effect of cranberries is debated in the literature, with some studies showing that they help and others that they have no effect. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether it is right for you.
Are cranberries too tart for your taste? Blueberries contain proanthocyanidin too! But you should know that research suggests that while they do have the same substance, they aren’t as potent as cranberries (Presley, 2019) in helping with a UTI. That said, blueberries are still a healthy fruit to eat and contain a high concentration of antioxidants that may help reduce scar formation from UTIs when used along with antibiotics (Allahmeh, 2016).
Eating greek yogurt and other foods with Lactobacillus cultures could help with UTIs. Lactobacillus is a bacteria that lives in generally the same area as E. coli. Lactobacillus can inhibit E. coli from growing colonies by producing hydrogen peroxide or inciting an immune system response from your body. While further research is needed, some evidence does suggest that Lactobacillus probiotics are effective in helping with UTIs (Foxman, 2013).
Plenty of water
The American Urological Association recommends that you drink plenty of water and stay hydrated; this ensures that your urinary system is routinely flushing out germs. They suggest roughly 2 liters (half a gallon) of fluids per day. Don’t be stressed—it’s important to note that you can get enough fluid through other liquids and even in your diet! So while water is the healthiest choice, you don’t have to carry a gallon water jug with you throughout the day (AUA, 2019).
What is a UTI?
Now that we know that what we eat and drink can affect our urinary tract health, let’s stop and ask: what even is a UTI? Why does it hurt when you pee? And should you see a doctor every time?
Urinary tract infections refer to a group of infections that cause inflammation anywhere along the urinary tract, including kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. UTIs are usually caused by bacteria and fungi colonizing your tract (Flores-Mireles, 2015).
Uncomplicated UTIs are categorized based on where your infection is. Lower urinary tract infections occur in your bladder and urethra; cystitis tends to be more common and less severe. Upper urinary tract infections occur in your kidneys; pyelonephritis tends to be less common and more severe. Complicated UTIs occur when you have secondary conditions associated with your UTI, like kidney stones or an enlarged prostate, that can make the UTI worse (Flores-Mireles, 2015).
How are UTIs treated?
UTIs are treated with a course of antibiotics. If you suspect you have a UTI, you should see a healthcare provider. Some UTI symptoms include frequent urination, a burning sensation when you pee, cloudy urine, blood in your urine, pelvic pain, pressure or cramping, and feeling like you need to pee despite the fact you just peed. Concerning symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting (CDC, 2019).
What happens if a UTI is left untreated?
UTIs can get much worse and cause serious damage if left untreated. With proper treatment, bladder infections can clear up in as soon as three days. However, without treatment, bladder infections can quickly turn into a more serious kidney infection.
Kidney infections can seriously damage your body, causing complications including (NIDDK, 2017):
- Collection of pus (abscess) in the kidney
- Kidney failure
- Death of kidney cells (renal papillary necrosis)
- Sepsis, an inflammatory response that can lead to multiple organs dysfunctioning, failing, or dying
How can I prevent a UTI?
Urinating is your body’s natural way of cleaning out the urinary tract. When you feel yourself needing to pee, please don’t hold it in for long, and take your time when you get to the bathroom. Holding your bladder and rushing the urination process can increase your chance of developing a UTI (AUA, 2019).
Penetrative sexual intercourse can introduce UTI-causing germs into your urinary tract. People with vaginas are 30 times more likely to develop a UTI than those with a penis. However, it’s still possible to develop a UTI if you have a penis. If you partake in anal sex, avoid going from the rectum to the vagina, as it could introduce UTI-causing germs into the urinary system (Lema, 2013). Regardless of your genitals, urinate after participating in sexual activity.
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- American Urology Association: Urology Care Foundation (AUA). (2019). What is a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Adults? Retrieved August 01, 2020, from https://www.urologyhealth.org/urology-a-z/u/urinary-tract-infections-in-adults
- American Urology Association: Urology Care Foundation (AUA). (2020). What is Urinary Incontinence? Retrieved August 01, 2020, from https://www.urologyhealth.org/urology-a-z/u/urinary-incontinence
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, August 27). Urinary Tract Infection. Retrieved August 01, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/uti.html
- Chen, Y., Chang, C., Chiu, T.H.T. et al. The risk of urinary tract infection in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: a prospective study. Sci Rep 10, 906 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58006-6 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-58006-6#citeas
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- Presley, Gabriel MD; Williston, Laurel MD In women with recurrent urinary tract infections, does daily blueberry consumption lead to a decreased risk of recurrence? (2019) Evidence-Based Practice: January – Volume 22 – Issue 1 – p 32 https://journals.lww.com/ebp/Citation/2019/01000/In_women_with_recurrent_urinary_tract_infections,.29.aspx
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.