8 Easy Ways to Prevent Urinary Tract Infections

You're right to be concerned about having a recurrence. In one survey, almost half of all women have had a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their life. And if you've had one, you're almost sure to have another, since four out of five women have a repeat infection within 18 months.

PHOTO (COLOR): Whip your thirst-and UTIs-with this drink.

UTIs occur when bacteria get into the urinary tract through the urethra, a short, narrow tube that carries urine from the bladder out through the body. Because women have much shorter urethras than men, they are more susceptible to UTIs.

But there are steps you can take to prevent them in the future-some new and some commonsense old favorites.

Berry Good News

For many years, drinking cranberry juice has been recommended as a way to prevent UTIs. Until recently, we thought that chemicals in the juice made the urine acidic, which prevented the infections. But in the last few years, studies have shown that cranberries actually prevent bacteria from sticking to cells that line the urinary tract, which consists of the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra.

Now new research has identified condensed tannins called proanthocyanidins as the compounds in cranberries that create this Teflon effect and help prevent the infections (New England Journal of Medicine, Oct 8, 1998). Blueberries, which belong to the same family as cranberries and contain the same antisticking substances, may also work. (To find out the exact amounts that you need to avoid urinary tract infections, see "Nutrition News" on p 54.)

I also encourage patients who experience recurrent UTls to eat a cup of yogurt made with active, live cultures daily. Yogurt contains Lactobacillus acidophilus, which may create an acid environment and prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria. The scientific evidence is still somewhat controversial, however, regarding just how effective it is for preventing infections.

Old-Time Favorites
Here are some commonsense measures that doctors have been recommending for years to help avoid UTIs.

Wash your genital area before sex so that bacteria from the vagina and anus won't get into the urethra.
Urinate before and after intercourse. This washes out any bacteria that could get into the urethra and make their way inside the bladder.
Diaphragms, used along with spermicides, have been shown to increase the risk of UTIs. They can irritate the sensitive tissues of the vagina and urethra, making infection more likely. Check with your doctor about using another form of birth control.
Use a water-based vaginal lubricant if you're experiencing vaginal dryness, and sex is uncomfortable. Dry tissues are more easily bruised and broken, giving bacteria easier access.
Drink at least 8 cups of water a day to dilute the urine and flush bacteria out of the bladder.
Wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement to prevent bacteria from the anus from entering the urethra.
If these precautions don't stop a recurrence, you may want to talk to your physician about taking low, preventive doses of antibiotics. Also, UTIs could be a sign of diabetes, so any woman with recurrent infections should be screened for it.

PHOTO (COLOR): Mary Jane Minkin, MD

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By Mary Jane Minkin, MD, with Toby Hanlon, EdD

Got a Question? Ask Dr. Minkin. Write to Talk to the Doctor, Prevention, 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098. Fax: 610-967-7654 or e-mail: prevention@rodalepress.com (type "Talk to the Doctor" on the subject line). We regret that Dr. Minkin cannot respond to every letter personally

Dr. Minkin is a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in New Haven, CT, clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine, and coauthor of What Every Woman Needs to Know about Menopause (Yale University Press, 1996).

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