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; such as drinking more water, urinating regularly, and wiping properly after using the bathroom.
Who Is at Higher Risk for Urinary Tract Infections?
A urinary tract infection occurs most often when the bacteria, E.coli enters the urethra and bladder, also known as 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 left untreated.
Anyone of any age can get a UTI. However, your anatomy, health conditions, and lifestyle can increase the likelihood of developing a urinary tract infection. The main risk factors for UTI include:
- Anatomy: People with vaginas 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 cause UTIs to get into the urinary system. In fact, people with vaginas are 30 times more likely to get a UTI.
- Age: The older someone gets, the more common it is to have trouble completely emptying the bladder. Any residual urine in the bladder is a potential bacterial breeding ground.
- 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 UTIs.
- Menopause: The prevalence of urinary tract infections in people past menopause who are 65 years and older about doubles. People past menopause 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 of 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
Even if you are at 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, but they may also help prevent a UTI.
Keep yourself hydrated throughout the day. This encourages urinating throughout the day, flushing bacteria out of your urinary system before it can cause an infection. One study found that eliminating certain beverages decreased UTI symptoms. These beverages included:
- Carbonated drinks
- Artificially sweetened beverages
Avoiding these beverages may help your UTI symptoms to decrease and help you feel better.
It’s best not to hold in urine. When you feel the urge, head to the bathroom. Make sure to pee at least every three to four hours and allow your bladder to completely empty. Holding your urine for longer allows too much bacteria to grow, potentially starting an infection.
Avoid using deodorant sprays and douches
Deodorants, sprays, and douches, especially scented ones, may irritate the urethra. The vagina contains a multitude of different microbes which help balance the pH of the vagina and keep it healthy.
Douching can also alter the pH and the balance of bacteria in the vagina, which can increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis (BV). People with BV are more likely to develop UTIs.
Avoid products such as:
- Scented powders
- Deodorant sprays
- Scented pads or tampons
Wipe properly when using the bathroom
Because the rectum is the main source of E. coli, it’s important to wipe your genitals from the front to the back anytime you use the bathroom. This decreases your risk of introducing bacteria into your urethra.
This is important for caregivers who are also cleaning people who are incontinent.
It’s even more important if you have diarrhea. Diarrhea can make staying clean more difficult and increases your risk of getting a UTI.
Consider a new birth control
Certain forms of birth control may promote bacterial growth.
- Unlubricated condoms
- Spermicide condoms
These products may irritate the urethra, while spermicide products and diaphragms can alter the natural bacteria and pH needed in the vagina.
If you think your birth control is putting you at higher risk for UTIs, talk with your medical provider about other birth control options. They can help you find an option that is right for you.
Change your underwear
Bacteria grow quickly in warm moist environments. Certain underwear fabrics are not breathable and encourage an environment for bacterial growth and possible UTIs.
Cotton fabric is breathable, allowing your genitals better airing out and cooling, which can decrease your risk for UTIs.
Hit the bathroom after sex
Sexual activity increases the risk of getting a UTI. People with vaginas are more at risk because bacteria can easily enter the short urethra during sex.
To reduce your risk of getting a UTI, urinate before and after sex to flush out any bacteria from the urethra.
Have your prostate checked
Older people with prostates are at higher risk for UTIs. The prostate gland sometimes enlarges with age. When the prostate enlarges, it can make completely emptying the bladder difficult, putting people at higher risk for bacteria growth in the remaining urine.
If you are prone to getting UTIs, let your medical provider know, and they can perform a prostate exam to check for an enlarged prostate. Sometimes medications or surgery can relieve this problem.
Estrogen therapy after menopause
Talk to your doctor about topical estrogen therapy if you are going through menopause or are beyond menopause and have recurrent UTIs. A study demonstrated that applying estrogen directly to the vagina with a cream or ring, reduced the number of UTIs in people past menopause.
UTI Prevention in Children
To help kids prevent the risk of UTIs, 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.
Note that the use of probiotics or vitamin C supplements is not proven to be effective against UTIs.
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.
Does Cranberry Juice Prevent UTIs?
Historically, North American Indians used cranberries to treat UTIs. However, scientific studies on the use of cranberries for UTI prevention are mixed. Some studies showed a slight decrease in UTIs when cranberry was used, but in other studies, there was no difference between the placebo groups and the cranberry groups.
In addition, cranberry juice has high amounts of sugar in it, which may encourage bacterial growth. If you’d like to drink cranberry juice for a UTI, get unsweetened cranberry juice.
Do Antibiotics Prevent UTIs?
People experiencing recurring UTIs are sometimes prescribed long-term antibiotics to help prevent them. However, there is limited research on this topic, and the studies available do not give evidence for or against the practice. There are also concerns over antibiotic use increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
When to See a Medical Provider
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 something else, such as 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.
An untreated bladder infection (cystitis) can lead to a more serious kidney infection. And an untreated kidney infection can lead to chronic kidney damage or infection outside the urinary tract.
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.
Frequently Asked Question
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.