Guide: What causes UTIs & how to prevent them
If you’ve never had a UTI – congratulations. But if you’re constantly picking them up (or curious what they are), read our need-to-know guide
Urinary tract infections affect the urinary tract (not surprisingly).
This is the whole system you use to urinate and includes the urethra – the tube that you pee out of – the bladder and the kidneys.
When you have a UTI, it can feel like you’re peeing fire. Twenty-seven times a day…
It’s not fun, and can lead to kidney infections if you don’t tackle a UTI in time. So, get the low-down with our guide.
What is a UTI?
Infections occur when bacteria like E. coli, which normally live harmlessly in the bowel, enter the urinary tract where they don’t belong – and start to multiply.
The symptoms of a UTI include:
- pain or stinging when you pee
- a need to pee more often
- only passing a small amount of urine when you go
Sometimes, there are traces of blood in the urine. You might also experience aches and pains in your lower abdomen or back.1
The difference between cystitis and UTI
They’re technically the same thing; the word cystitis simply relates to where in the urinary tract the infection has occurred.
Cystitis is an infection in the bladder, urethritis is an infection in the urethra, and when the kidneys are involved, it’s just a kidney infection.
Why women are more likely to get UTIs
Men can get UTIs, but women are far more prone to them because of the way the female body is designed: the female urethra is very close to the back passage, meaning bacteria can easily travel from A to B.
While one third of women has experienced a UTI at some point in their life, US statistics estimate that around 100 women in every 100,000 will get them regularly.2
This may be because the distance between their anus and urethra is shorter than average.
Women who don’t regularly get cystitis had a gap of 5cm, while those that do had a gap of just 4.8cm.3 Yep, just 2mm difference can cause all of that agony.
What else triggers a UTI?
It could be down to the bacteria balance in the bladder.
A 2018 study from Loyola University in the US has discovered that, just like the gut, the bladder has its own microbiome, where healthy strains of bacteria prevent less helpful ones from taking over.4
This bladder microbiome may be out of balance in women who suffer recurrent infections.
A fall in oestrogen levels around menopause also alters bacteria balance – specifically, it reduces levels of protective Lactobacillus.
This means women might find they develop more frequent UTIs as they get older. Diabetes also alters the bacteria balance, so those with either type 1 or type 2 diabetes can be more susceptible.5
Tackle the symptoms of a UTI
Many UTIs will pass by themselves without needing antibiotics, but it’s important to drink plenty of water while your body fights the infection.
This helps flush out the bacteria, and makes urine less concentrated so it’s less irritating.
You may also want to consider taking D-mannose.
This particular type of sugar can stop bacteria sticking to the walls of the urinary tract, making it easier for you to pass them out.
A study by University Sapienza of Rome discovered D-mannose can reduce UTI symptoms and also cut the risk of recurrence when used for six months.6
If you get a UTI when pregnant, don’t try to tackle things alone. See your GP, as a urinary infection that reaches the kidneys can pose a risk to the baby.
You should also see your GP if you notice blood in your urine or if your symptoms don’t improve after two to three days.
Ask for an urgent appointment if you get pain in your sides or lower back, develop a temperature or get an upset stomach/start vomiting – this can be a sign that the infection has reached the kidneys and should always be taken seriously.7
6 easy ways to avoid UTIs
If left untreated, a UTI could lead to a serious kidney infection, so it makes sense to learn how to avoid them.
If you want to avoid repeated courses of antibiotics, or simply take better care of your health, follow these 6 steps to help prevent a UTI.
Wipe from front to back
It sounds obvious, but this is one of the easiest ways to stop bacteria being transferred from your anus to your urethra.8
So every time you pee, make sure you wipe from front to back. Teach your kids to wipe this way too.
Children can also suffer from cystitis, which may cause them to wet the bed and feel very ill.9 Take them to a doctor as soon as you suspect they’ve got a UTI.
Pee after sex
While it may not be particularly romantic, peeing within 15 minutes of having sex can help wash away any bacteria. If you can, give yourself a quick wash before and after sex too.10
If you suffer from recurrent UTIs, also encourage your partner to wash. It may be a mood-killer, but so is suffering from cystitis for months on end…
Rethink your underwear
Big fan of thongs? They could be triggering your UTIs.
While there’s no evidence to prove that G-strings can cause infections like cystitis, experts agree that thongs make it much easier for harmful bacteria to travel from back to front, triggering UTI symptoms.11
We should all be wearing cotton underwear too. Synthetic fibres don’t allow your skin to breathe properly, trapping moisture and encouraging bacteria to grow.12
Ditch the bubble baths
Bubble baths can be bad news for UTIs – sitting in a bath brings your genitals into contact with any chemicals in perfumed bubble bath or bath salts for longer than they would do in a shower.13
Stick to having showers, and use unperfumed soaps and shower gels instead. Avoid applying talcum powder afterwards too, as this can also cause irritation.14
Cut down on sugar
If you’re thinking about cutting out the white stuff, add ‘may help prevent UTIs’ to the list of reasons to quit.
Sugar is known to encourage the growth of bacteria, so a high-sugar diet could make you more susceptible to cystitis.15
Try to limit the amount of sugary foods you eat, such as biscuits, cake and sweets, but also keep an eye on any food labels to spot hidden sugars in everyday foods.
For example, many low-fat foods contain a lot of sugar to help maintain flavour.16
Avoid caffeinated drinks
Reducing your intake of tea, coffee, cola, and energy drinks can help for several reasons.
One study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2013 found that caffeinated drinks increased the need to pee and led to worse symptoms in women with UTIs.17
Tea and coffee are also diuretics, which make you pee more often, and can irritate the bladder.18
Switch to drinking more water – it can help dilute urine and flush out any bacteria – or green tea.
In 2007, researchers from University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences discovered that green tea can protect bladder cells from inflammation.