Urinary Tract Infection Prevention

Personal hygiene and changes in sex practices are key

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A urinary tract infection (UTI) may not only make you feel miserable, but it can cause serious problems if left untreated. With as many as 60 percent of women likely to get a UTI some point (and upwards of 15 percent of men), prevention is key to avoiding the persistent and sometimes severe complications of infection. While safer sex and good genital hygiene are central to preventing a UTI, there are other practices that may help if you are prone to recurrent infection.

General Tips

While women are four times more likely to get a urinary tract infection than men, many of the same principles of prevention apply. The primary aim is to avoid the introduction of harmful bacteria into the urinary tract, either as result of bathroom habits or sexual activity. The secondary aim is to maintain your urinary tract health and make it far less vulnerable to infection.

Whether you are a woman or a man, there are some general practices that can help:

  • Cleanse your genitals before and after sex. Warm water and a plain, mild soap will generally do the trick. Avoid harsh cleansers or scented soaps, which can cause inflammation of the urethra (the tube through which urine leaves the body).
  • Urinate immediately after sex. Doing so helps flush bacteria and other microbes out of the urinary tract.
  • Wash your rectum daily. Regular washing prevents bacteria from spreading from residual fecal matter, often trapped in skin folds, to adjacent tissues.
  • Drinks lots of water. By regularly flushing the urinary tract, bacteria will have a harder time establishing an infection. Aim to drink at least eight glasses of water per day (or roughly a half gallon).
  • Don't hold your urine. This allows any bacteria circulating in the bladder to establish an infection. Go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the need and be sure to empty your bladder completely.

In Women

The risk of UTI in women is greater due, in part, to the influences of the natural bacteria in the vagina. The "good" Lactobacillus bacteria found in the vaginal flora help maintain the ideal acidity (pH 3.8 to 4.5) to keep harmful bacteria at bay. Disrupting this balance can promote infection and make a UTI all the more likely.

Among the most effective ways to prevent a UTI:

  • Avoid douching. Douching only strips away the vaginal flora and creates the ideal environment for a bacterial infection.
  • Choose showers over baths. Bathing can alter vaginal pH and introduce soap residue and other chemicals into the vagina. If using a washcloth, clean the genital area first and the anus after. If using a hand shower, point it in a downward direction over the vagina rather than into the vagina directly.
  • Avoid harsh or scented soaps. Instead, go for milder soaps like Dove Sensitive or Cetaphil. Scented products of any sort can irritate vaginal tissues, including feminine hygiene sprays, bubble bath, perfumed bath oils, scented powders, scented tampons, and scented pads.
  • Wipe from front to back. After urinating, tilt your body forward and, reaching between your buttocks, starting wiping from the front of the vagina to the back. When you are finished, take a separate piece of paper to clean the anus, starting at the perineum (the space between the vagina and anus) and wiping back between your buttocks. Doing so prevents introducing bacteria from the anus to the vagina.
  • Use condoms. Even if you are in a monogamous relationship, condoms can prevent the transmission of bacteria during vaginal intercourse. Avoid unlubricated condoms, which can stress vaginal tissues, and spermicidal lubricants (like nonoxynol-9), which can trigger vaginal inflammation. Flavored condoms and lubricants are also a no-no as they are infused with sugars that promote bacterial growth and flavorants that cause irritation.
  • Avoid using a diaphragm, especially if you are prone to urinary tract infections. A diaphragm can promote the growth of coliform bacteria like E. coli. Consider switching to alternate forms of contraception, such as the Pill or condoms.
  • Wear breathable cotton underwear. Synthetic fabrics, by contrast, trap in moisture and create the perfect breeding ground for infection. If you are prone to UTIs, wear loose-fitting bottoms that allow air to circulate around the vagina. At night, you can either sleep without underwear or wear loose-fitting boxers or shorts.
  • Try probiotics. Probiotics, found in foods like yogurt and over-the-counter nutritional supplements, not only help maintain healthy digestive flora but can promote the same in the vagina.
  • Drink cranberry juice. In addition to water, drinking a daily glass of cranberry juice may lower your risk of recurrent infection. Avoid sweetened cranberry juice, as the excess sugar can promote bacterial growth in the vagina. Cranberry supplements are also available.

In Men

Urinary tract infections in men differ from women in that they are less commonly caused by sex. The only exception may be anal sex in which fecal matter can be introduced into the male urethra.

By and large, UTIs in men are associated with age, caused by physiological changes that prevent the bladder to fully empty (such as an enlarged prostate) or interfere with bowel control.

In addition to following general prevention tips, men can reduce their risk of a UTI by adhering to these practices:

  • Use condoms when engaging in anal sex. Avoid oil-based lubricants, which can cause condom breakage, and instead opt for a water-based lubricant that neither contains spermicides nor a numbing agent like lidocaine.
  • Wash under your foreskin if you are uncircumcised. The tissue beneath the foreskin can be a breeding ground for bacteria unless cleaned daily. Failure to do so can lead to urethral inflammation and the increased risk of infection.
  • Keep your genitals dry. Wear cotton underwear and change them daily (or more frequently if they get sweaty or you experience bowel or bladder leakage).
  • Take your prostate medications as prescribed. Doing so can improve your urinary flow and reduce the risk of infection. Be sure to keep your kidneys working by drinking plenty of water. If your prostate drugs aren't working as well as they should, speak with your doctor.

In Children

Urinary tract infections are common in children, especially girls. However, many of these infections can be avoided by teaching your child about hygiene and other healthy habits.

Among the considerations, children should be taught to:

  • Never "hold it." Children should go every two or three hours when awake. Young children especially will often squat and grab their genitals when they need to go. This may only serve to force the bacteria deeper into the urinary tract and cause infection.
  • Practice good toileting habits. This includes teaching kids to take their time when going to the bathroom and to completely empty their bladders without straining.
  • Change undergarments. Clean underwear should be worn every day (or put on after an accident or excessive sweating).
  • Keep well hydrated. Children ages 5 to 8 should drink five glasses of water per day. Children ages 9 to 12 should increase to seven glasses per day. From the age of 13 onward, intake should be no less than eight to 10 glasses daily.
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