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A UTI sucks, plain and simple. It’s one of those medical catastrophes that can strike seemingly out of nowhere. And, between the pressure in your pelvic floor plus the need (the begging!) to pee, the pain can be, to put it lightly —unbearable. Well, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone: “UTIs are incredibly common and about half of all women will have one by the time they reach 30,” says Mary Anna Denman, M.D., a urogynecologist at the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Women's Health. If you have only that one, consider yourself lucky because recurrent UTIs are also a common health concern — especially since by recurrent, Denman says as few as three a year suffices.
While you’d think the ins and outs of UTIs are by now concrete among doctors, why some women get them and some don’t is still not entirely understood in the medical community. “It’s something that we are still figuring out,” says Denman. “We know that some have a genetic predisposition and there are specific blood types that are associated with reoccurring UTIs — and for those people, its sort of like getting a skinned knee in the sense that once it starts to heal, if you keep picking the scab off, then it never completely goes away — and the same is true for the bladder if the bacteria keeps coming back before it heals.”
By now you probably know what a UTI is — even the name itself, urinary tract infection, speaks for itself — but as a little refresher, a UTI is when bacteria that should not be there gets up your urinary tract. The typical go-to treatment is a no-joke antibiotic, such as Macrobid or Bactrim. But, Denman points out and research is now showing that while symptoms may be hard to deal with for more than 2.2 seconds, that a UTI can and will often clear up on its own. “Without treatment, the majority of UTIs will go away in about 48 hours,” says Denman. “The body is typically able to get rid of the bacteria on its own, it just takes some time.” So, why are people starting to re-think antibiotics? “If you don’t take the entire course of antibiotics, which often happens when someone starts to feel better, or have recurring UTIs and take these antibiotics over and over again, it can result in resistant bacterial infections.”
That's all fine and dandy, but what do you do if just waiting out the 48 hours your body needs to naturally kick it seems like a lifetime? Surprisingly, the drugstore has good options to ease the pain. The most common OTC UTI treatments (such as Cystex and Azo) are what Denman calls “aspirin for the bladder”. “They essentially get in there and numb things up so it’s good for a day or two while you see if the symptoms go away on their own — but no longer than that — or until you can get antibiotics,” she says. Another long-time recommendation is downing natural cranberry juice or popping cranberry pills. But, if they really help to prevent or heal a UTI is not totally set in stone: Denman says more studies are needed to really prove the efficacy. “The theory behind cranberry as a treatment for a UTI is that it is able to counteract one type of the E. coli, but only 80 to 85 percent are caused by that strain, which still leaves a decent amount of room for an infection to occur.”
The main cause of UTIs typically is intercourse, simply because well, the exchange of bodily fluids and pressing together can cause bacteria to move and get up where it doesn’t belong. And, while many doctors often also tell patients to avoid hot tubs and wet, synthetic, tight fitting clothes, a recent study shows that these things aren’t really as connected to an increase in UTIs as once thought. However, Denman notes that of course, all of the above, plus being rundown, having a low immune system, being dehydrated, and getting your lady parts super-sweaty on a spin bike and staying in your Lulu’s could create the perfect UTI storm.
Denman also says that the use of spermicide is also proven to boost the likelihood of getting one, too. And the whole pee-before-after-sex tip? Turns out that might not lower your chances either. “Once bacteria is up there, it’s pretty much up there,” says Denman. “It’s not likely you’ll pee it out.” Another surprising possible culprit of a UTI? Chicken. Yes, chicken. In 2010, researchers found that the presence of E. coli in food could trigger one.
So, to keep your vagina and your bladder in tip-top, bacteria-free shape, stay hydrated — especially when you partied like a rock star the night before — keep your immune system supercharged (with R&R), change out of your workout pants before you hit brunch (because hey, better to be safe than sorry), and then pretty much hope that you didn’t hit the UTI genetic crapshoot. And, if you are a chronic UTI getter, talk to your doctor about getting on a small antibiotic dose that you can pop post intercourse, instead of the standard mega-bacteria fighters that you would normally need once a UTI is in full effect. “For those who get UTI’s often, we see that this method helps, as it decreases bacteria from being introduced in the bladder,” says Denman.