According to research, UTIs (urinary tract infections) account for nearly 25 percent of all reported clinical bacterial infections. While they do occur in men, they’re eight times more common in women. In fact, it’s estimated that a whopping 50 to 60 percent of women will get a UTI in their lifetime.
Despite the prevalence of UTIs, which can range in severity from mild discomfort to extreme pain, urinary tract health is something many shy away from discussing. It’s unfortunate, as there are many useful tips for dodging UTIs.
Here, experts share why you get UTIs in the first place, plus how to proactively improve your urinary tract health.
All About UTIs
A UTI is an infection that occurs within the urinary tract, which includes the kidneys, bladder, and urethra. “A UTI is typically caused by bacteria that seed the urological tract and multiply to create an active infection,” explains Felice Gersh, M.D., an OB/GYN in Irvine, California. These infections are often associated with a slew of unpleasant symptoms, including an intense urge to urinate followed by a sharp pain or burning upon urination, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
“Sometimes UTIs can even cause blood in the urine and, if untreated, can climb up to your kidneys, called pyelonephritis, which can be more serious, causing systemic symptoms like fever and back pain, and even leading to sepsis or an infection in your blood,” explains Allison Rodgers, M.D., OB/GYN, a reproductive endocrinologist at Fertility Centers of Illinois.
The reason why UTIs are more common in women than men: The urethra (the tube that carries the urine from the bladder outside) is much shorter in women, so bacteria have an easier time making their way in, according to Rodgers.
Certain women also tend to be extra vulnerable to UTIs, including women on oral contraceptives and other hormonal contraceptives, menopausal women, and pregnant women, notes Gersh. “Anyone suffering from neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a spinal cord injury—especially if paralysis exists below the waist—as well as men with enlarged prostate glands, are also more prone,” she adds.
Unfortunately, urinary tract health is often overlooked due to a combination of lack of access to health care and the fact that people are generally shy to discuss issues relating to urination and the genital tract, according to Gersh. “Many also have no idea what can be done to improve urinary tract health, and so ignore it as long as possible,” she says.
How To Keep Your Urinary Tract Healthy
Use these tactics to improve your urinary tract health and help avoid UTIs.
1. Wipe front to back
One of the simplest things you can do to boost your urinary health and ward off UTIs is to remember to wipe front to back—that means wiping in the direction from your vagina to your anus. This helps keep bacteria like E.coli, which can lead to infections like a UTI, out of the urethra, explains S. Adam Ramin, M.D., urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles.
2. Stay hydrated
You know that staying hydrated is important for your overall health but you may not realize the crucial role it plays when it comes to your urinary health. Drinking water regularly throughout the day to maintain urine that is light yellow to clear helps flush bad bacteria out of your body through your urinary tract, explains Ramin. “The darker the urine color, the more dehydrated your body,” he says. “Making sure your body has the fluids it needs is key for so many health attributes and optimal urological health is one of them.”
3. Don’t hold your urine in for too long
As soon as you feel the need to urinate, it’s a good idea to find yourself a toilet within 30 minutes, as holding your urine in for too long can actually damage your bladder muscles, eventually leading to incontinence, infection, or poor bladder emptying, warns Ramin. “Urinating as soon as you feel the urge and making a conscious effort to empty your bladder fully when you do can increase the chances of expelling UTI-causing germs from your body, thereby further reducing your risk of developing an infection,” he notes.
4. Pee immediately after sex
This is advice most urologists and gynecologists give their patients, especially those prone to UTIs. Sex can introduce all sorts of bacteria to the urethra and urinating immediately after helps clean the area, explains Ramin. If you have access to a shower, even better. Ramin recommends washing your genital area with mild soap and warm water after sex when possible.
5. Eat your fruits and vegetables
The benefits of produce are plentiful—and there are a couple of specific ways these important foods support urinary tract health.
First, by providing antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory properties, says Ramin. Leafy greens, bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, red cabbage, avocado, and berries are all rich in these compounds. He recommends consuming these foods raw in salads with lemon juice and olive oil. “Heat can change the molecular structures of ingredients that may help reduce inflammation,” he says.
Second? “D-mannose, a sugar found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, has links to urinary tract health,” notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N., L.D.N., C.P.T. “Common food sources include green beans, cabbage, eggplant, turnips, broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, black currants, cranberries, apples, peaches, tomatoes, oranges, and blueberries.”
6. Consume cranberry
This tart berry is a classic go-to for urinary tract health—and deserves its own section here because it not only contains that helpful D-mannose, but beneficial compounds called proanthocyanidins, too. These proanthocyanidins basically work to keep bad bacteria from sticking to the walls of the urinary tract, according to Michels.
Here’s the thing, though: To reap the benefits, you’ll need to go for unsweetened cranberries or 100 percent pure, unsweetened cranberry juice. “Most commercial cranberry juice drinks include very little proanthocyanidins and include a lot of added sugar, which fuels the bad bacteria we’re trying to eliminate,” Michels says. “Stick to the whole, unsweetened version or supplement with a cranberry concentrate or extract.” Check out plnt brand Cranberry.
7. Add More Fermented Foods to Your Diet
According to Michels, deficiency in the probiotic strains Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus fermentum, Lactobacillus reuteri, and Lactobacillus plantarum can negatively impact urinary tract health. That’s why she recommends regularly incorporating fermented foods—from yogurt to sauerkraut to kombucha—that contain these strains. (Just check your labels to make sure you’re getting the bacteria you’re looking for!)
8. Perform Kegel exercises
These exercises, meant to strengthen the muscles in your pelvic floor, essentially involve tightening your body in the same way you would when trying to hold in your pee and holding for five seconds before releasing, explains Ramin, who recommends doing at least 20 kegels per day. “One of the causes of UTIs is incontinence and prevention is key in helping reduce this risk factor,” he says.
9. Consider supplementation
In addition to cranberry, you might also consider supplementing with D-mannose and those important good bacteria strains to support a healthy urinary tract—especially if you don’t regularly consume much of the foods that contain these helpful factors.
When it comes to probiotics, Michels recommends The Vitamin Shoppe brand Delayed Release 50 Billion Women’s Probiotic. You can also add The Vitamin Shoppe brand D-Mannose powder to water or unsweetened juice. Another cool option? TrueYou Easy Peasy contains both D-mannose and cranberry fruit concentrate.