Here’s a statistic for you: About 60% of women will experience a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their life.
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One of the most widely held beliefs about UTIs is that drinking cranberry juice (or taking cranberry supplements) can prevent and get rid of them.
“There is an active ingredient in cranberries that can prevent adherence of bacteria to the bladder wall, particularly E. coli,” explains urologist Courtenay Moore, MD. “But most of the studies suggest that juice and supplements don’t have enough of this active ingredient (A-type proanthocyanidins) to prevent bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract.”
The science is mixed
Overall, clinical studies on the efficacy of cranberry juices and extracts for preventing UTIs are conflicting.
One 2013 analysis of 13 different trials concluded that cranberry juice and tablets did reduce the occurrence of UTIs compared to placebo in women with recurrent UTIs. But another review found that they didn’t.
In additions to questions about cranberry’s effectiveness in preventing and treating UTIs, the amount of active ingredient that each product contains is not necessarily consistent. Therefore, products may not have enough of the active ingredient to be effective in preventing bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall.
The American Urological Association’s guidelines on recurrent UTIs in women states that clinicians may offer cranberry prophylaxis (for prevention), as there is little risk associated with these supplements, Dr. Moore notes.
The bottom line? “Cranberry won’t hurt, but it may help. It could be worth trying if you struggle with frequent UTIs, as the risk in doing so is very low,” Dr. Moore says.
How you actually can help prevent UTIs
Dr. Moore says she’s heard all of the myths about how to prevent or treat UTIs — drinking lots of water, urinating after sex, avoiding tight-fitting pants and staying away from hot tubs, bubble baths and tampons. None of these beliefs is supported by scientific data, she says.
On the other hand, here are three things that Dr. Moore says women should do to help prevent UTIs:
- Take precautions to prevent UTIs after sex. “Frequency of sexual activity is strongly correlated with UTIs,” she says, and having multiple partners and a history of sexually transmitted diseases put you at the greatest risk. If you’re prone to recurrent UTIs, Dr. Moore advises against using spermicides or barrier contraceptives (like a diaphragm) and will often recommend a single dose of an oral antibiotic be taken before or after sex.
- Develop good bowel habits. UTIs are caused when bacteria from the rectum strays into the vagina, she says. That most commonly happens when you have constipation or diarrhea, so do what you can to stay regular.
- Balance “good” bacteria with bad. For post-menopausal women with recurrent UTIs, Dr. Moore often uses a combination of topical (vaginal) estrogen and probiotics. Menopause alters vaginal pH, which causes a change in bacterial colonization. Topical estrogen normalizes vaginal pH so that the vagina is hospitable to good bacteria again. The “good bacteria,” or lactobacillus, from taking probiotics can then colonize the vagina. “You want more healthy bacteria so less bad bacteria can adhere to the vagina,” she says. Rushing to the grocery store for yogurt isn’t enough, though. “Not all yogurt brands have probiotics in them, and you’d have to eat about seven a day to get what you need,” she says.
Even though UTIs happen frequently, you can take steps to lower your risk.