What causes Urinary Tract Infections (UTI)? Can cranberry juice help?

illustration of urinary tract

8 million Americans visit the doctor each year due to Urinary Tract Infections (UTI), making this the second most common type of infection. Four times as common in women than men, UTI occurs when germs (usually bacteria but could be virus or fungus) overwhelm the body's natural defenses and are able to proliferate in the bladder or urethra. If left untreated, the bacteria can spread to the kidneys and cause potentially permanent or even life-threatening kidney damage, high blood pressure and other problems.

Depending on a person's age, gender and whether or not they use an internal catheter, UTI symptoms vary but most often include one or more of the following:

  • a painful, burning feeling when you urinate
  • the need to urinate often, even when little comes out
  • pain or pressure in lower belly, pelvic or rectum
  • the urine is cloudy, pink or brown, or strong smelling
  • fever not attributable to some other causes. (Often, fever is the only symptom to appear when catheters are involved)
  • elderly people may not even experience any of the discomforts normally associated with urinary tract infections but may show signs of new or increased confusion as a result of the infection
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If addressed at the first signs of UTI, home treatment may be able to resolve minor cases. Home treatment for includes:

  • Drink extra fluids in order to flush out urinary bacteria
  • Urinate often and completely
  • Avoid bubble baths or using harsh soaps
  • Abstain from sexual activities until symptoms subside
  • Avoid douches or perfumed female hygiene products

If a fever appears or symptoms last for more than a day or two, visit your doctor. He or she will probably prescribe one of several antibiotics, depending on the particular type of germ involved. A prescription or over the counter pain medications may also be advised, if needed.

How to prevent reoccurring Urinary Tract Infections

The following lifestyle changes may help to minimize a person's risk of developing reoccurring urinary tract infections:

  • Avoid dehydration! Drinking 6-8 8-ounce glasses of fluids (especially water) daily helps to dilute the urine and promote urination, which flushes out bacteria. Consider avoiding coffee, sodas, artificially sweetened beverages (especially aspartame) or alcohol which may irritate the bladder. (Someone with kidney failure should not drink this much fluids.)
  • Urinate when you feel the need... do not try "holding it." The longer urine sits in the bladder, the more time bacteria has to proliferate. (One study of teachers who limited fluid intake so they could avoid having to visit the bathroom throughout the workday, found they were twice as likely to develop a UTI.)
  • When you urinate, allow the bladder to empty completely.
  • Avoid using douches or other scented feminine hygiene products which can disrupt the body's normal bacteria
  • Wash genitals with mild soap daily, rinse and dry well. Take showers instead of baths.
  • Urinating and cleaning genital area before and soon after intercourse
  • Wear loose-fitting, cotton underwear or cotton-lined panty hose. Avoid tight-fitting jeans or nylons that tend to trap moisture.
  • After using the toilet, wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria
  • If you experience more than 3 urinary tract infections per year, your doctor may prescribe low-dose antibiotics as a preventative measure. Also, a doctor's visit would be suggested if a person with UTI symptom has diabetes, is pregnant or is a male (where the problem may be associated to an enlarged prostate).
  • Urinary catheters should be used only when needed and not as a convenience. The urethral area and catheter should be cleaned with soap and water daily and after every bowel movement. Keep the drainage bag lower than the bladder to prevent urine from backing up.
  • Women who use a diaphragm, spermicides or other contraceptive creams may want to discuss other forms of birth control with their doctor.

Can cranberry juice prevent urinary tract infections?

Drinking 8 ounces a day of cranberry juice and eating cranberries in general have long been recognized as a way to prevent urinary tract infections -- but do they really work? The literature appears to support this claim -- but only for some women and not all. There is no evidence to suggest that cranberry juice alone can resolve an existing urinary tract infection.

It is theorized that the e-coli bacteria that most often cause UTIs have a biofilm with small rod-like projections which make the bacteria stick to the lining of the urinary tract and bladder. Cranberries contain a specific type of proanthocyanidin which destroys the rods and prevents adhesion of the bacteria to the cells that line the urinary tract.

Unless you have kidney stones or are taking warfarin blood thinner, there are no harmful side-effects or contraindications for the use of cranberry products -- and at the very least, drinking cranberry juice serves to increase your fluid intake. The only caution would be to avoid ingesting large amounts of sugar that go along with most cranberry products. One way to avoid this risk is to consume plain, unsweetened cranberry juice which you may need to dilute -- since cranberry juice can taste awfully tart. Unsweetened cranberry also comes in capsules that are swallowed and should work as well as cranberry juice for the prevention of UTIs.

Lastly some articles suggest that blueberries may work similarly to cranberries and that Vitamin C supplements may also help prevent UTI.

Healthwise for Life, Veterans Health Administration

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