Once you’ve had one urinary tract infection (UTI), you’ve had enough. The burning, urgency, and overall discomfort can make you miserable and unproductive since you’re always going to the bathroom.
Many things—from your anatomy to your sex life to your toilet hygiene—can put you at an increased risk of UTIs. Although you cannot change all of these factors, some simple good habits can help prevent a UTI and any of the potential complications.
Who Is at Higher Risk for Urinary Tract Infections?
A urinary tract infection occurs most often when e. coli enters the urethra and bladder (a.k.a. the lower urinary tract) and multiplies. This bacterial growth can spread to other parts of the urinary system and even through the ureters to the kidneys if it’s left untreated.
UTIs don’t discriminate. Anyone of any age can get a UTI. However, your anatomy, health conditions, and lifestyle can increase the likelihood of developing a UTI. The main risk factors include:
- Sex: Compared to men, women have a shorter urethra and the opening of the urethra is closer to the vaginal opening and the anus. Both of these things make it easier for bacteria that causes UTIs to get into the urinary system. In fact, women are 30 times more likely than men to get a UTI.
- Age: The older someone gets, the more common it is to have troubles completely emptying the bladder. Any pool of bladder is an attractive place for bacteria to hang out.
- Diabetes. UTIs are more common and more severe in people living with type 2 diabetes. This is likely due to the fact that diabetes can weaken the immune system’s ability to fight off infection.
- Sexual activity: During sex, bacteria can enter the urinary tract and potentially lead to infection. Having multiple partners or frequent sex appears to increase the risk of recurrent UTI.
- Menopause: The prevalence of a urinary tract infection in women 65 and older is about double that of all women. Post-menopausal women are likely at increased risk of UTI due to a decrease in estrogen, which causes changes in the bacteria in the vaginal microbiome.
- Spinal cord injuries: It can be difficult to fully empty the bladder when someone has a spinal cord injury or other nerve damage. No wonder people with spinal cord injuries have an average 2.5 UTIs each year.
- Urinary catheters: A catheter is a tube placed in the urethra and bladder to drain urine. Unfortunately, having a urinary catheter inserted or improper care of a catheter can introduce bacteria into the urinary tract.
- Bowel incontinence: A loss of bowel control can make someone three times more likely to develop a UTI.
- Urinary tract blockage: Kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, a tumor, and other conditions can block the flow of urine.
- Recent urinary tract procedures: Urinary surgery and examination of the urinary system with medical instruments can increase the risk of developing a urinary tract infection.
- Certain forms of birth control: Unlubricated condoms, spermicides, or vaginal diaphragms may increase the risk of UTI.
- Antibiotics: This may be confusing since antibiotics are often the first-line treatment for UTIs. However, antibiotics can throw off the balance of natural bacteria in the urinary tract. That can sometimes cause a UTI to develop.
How to Prevent a UTI
No matter what your risk for UTI, you can take action to reduce the likelihood of having bacteria grow and spread within your urinary tract. The below habits not only promote general wellness, they may also help prevent a UTI.
- Drink up. Increasing the intake of fluids—especially water—leads to more frequent urination. And peeing more often can help flush bacteria out of your urinary system before it can cause an infection. Cranberry juice is not proven to prevent UTIs. However, unsweetened 100% cranberry juice would be another fluid, and therefore could also help flush bacteria. (Keep in mind, however, that cranberry juice has about 120 calories per cup. That can add up.)
- Urinate regularly. It’s best not to hold in urine. When you feel the urge, head to the bathroom.
- Avoid using deodorant sprays and douches. These products may irritate the urethra. Douching can also alter the pH and the balance of bacteria in the vagina, which can increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis.
- Wipe properly when using the bathroom. Whether it’s after urination or a bowel movement, always try to wipe from front to back.
- Consider a new birth control. Using unlubricated condoms, spermicides, or diaphragms can lead to UTIs. Unlubricated condoms can irritate the urethra, while spermicide and diaphragms can change the natural bacteria in the vagina, making it easier for harmful bacteria to grow.
- Change your underwear. Cotton underwear is breathable. That means it won’t trap in moisture—and bacteria thrives in moist environments.
- Hit the bathroom after sex. If you’re prone to recurrent UTIs, it may help to empty your bladder shortly after sexual intercourse. You don’t have to jump up the second you finish orgasming. Just try to pee soon after.
UTI Prevention in Men
For men, drinking fluids, urinating when needed, good hygiene in the bathroom, and peeing after sex may help prevent UTIs.
Additionally, if you frequently get UTIs, see your doctor. They can perform a physical exam to check for an enlarged prostate. If this is the case, you may need surgery.
UTI Prevention in Older Women
If you are menopausal and have recurrent UTIs, talk to your doctor about topical estrogen therapy. When applied directly to the vagina with a cream or ring, estrogen may reduce the number of UTIs you experience.
UTI Prevention in Children
To help kids prevent the risk of UTI, parents can follow the steps below:
- Encourage drinking water throughout the day. Be sure to cut back an hour or so before bed to prevent bedwetting.
- Teach children to wipe from front to back in the bathroom and to fully empty their bladders when they go.
- As much as possible, do not tell children to “hold it.” They should use the bathroom when they feel the urge, just as adults do.
- Dress them in cotton underwear and avoid pants that are too tight in the groin.
- Change out of wet bathing suits as soon as possible.
Can You Prevent a Urinary Tract Infection When You Feel It Coming On?
It can be tempting to try to “flush out” a UTI by guzzling water and cranberry juice when you notice the first hints of burning urination. There’s nothing wrong with staying hydrated, whether or not you have a UTI. But it’s always best to consult your doctor if you suspect you have a urinary tract infection.
Only trained healthcare professionals can properly diagnose a UTI. And if you delay seeking out care, you risk having the infection spread. That can lead to complications such as kidney damage or even sepsis, a potentially life-threatening condition. It’s not worth the risk. Call your doctor.
When to See a Doctor
If you experience any symptoms that make you think you may have a urinary tract infection, see your doctor. It could be a UTI, or it could be something else, such a sexually transmitted disease, so it’s important to receive an accurate diagnosis. That way, you can treat the issue with the appropriate medication and other remedies.
The faster you can be treated, the faster you can relieve your symptoms. Plus, quick treatment will help prevent any medical complications that could happen if the infection spreads.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can get affordable UTI treatment with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms using our AI-driven symptom checker and, if needed, text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s board-certified, U.S.-based doctors can provide a treatment plan and prescription to resolve your symptoms as soon as possible.