You may have heard of Escherichia coli (E. coli), the bacteria that can result in food-borne illness. Some E. coli strains also have the capacity to colonize in the urinary tract. A new study (June 2023) has linked the consumption of these strains of E. coli in chicken and pork to hundreds of thousands of painful UTIs annually. Here is what you need to know about UTIs and how to prevent them:

Urinary tract infections. A UTI is an infection in any part of the urinary system. The urinary system includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra (the tube that releases urine from the bladder out of the body). Most infections involve the lower urinary tract — the bladder and the urethra. A UTI occurs when a bacterium enters the urethra. It is easy to contract a UTI, especially in women. Women are at greater risk for a UTI because they have a shorter urethra than men do, so it’s easier for bacteria to travel to the bladder. Most women experience more than one UTI during their lifetimes.

Risk factors. Risk factors for UTIs in women include:

  • Sexual activity. Frequent sexual intercourse tends to lead to more UTIs. Having a new sexual partner also increases risk.
  • Certain types of birth control. Using a diaphragm for birth control and spermicides may increase the risk of UTIs.
  • Urination frequency. Holding it in for lengthy periods of time and incomplete bladder emptying increases the risk.
  • Menopause. After menopause, a decline in circulating estrogen causes changes in the urinary tract. These changes can increase the risk of UTIs.

Symptoms of UTIs. UTIs can be painful. Common symptoms include discomfort when urinating, urgency and frequency of urination, tenderness above the bladder area, cramps, fatigue, or a stinging sensation during sex. Most UTIs are mild and easily treated with antibiotics. In rare cases, a UTI can be severe and even fatal.

Preventing UTIs. Prevention of UTIs includes drinking lots of water, emptying the bladder often, wiping from front to back, urinating as soon as possible after sex, drinking cranberry juice, and washing your hands often.

Preventing food-borne UTIs. E. coli acquired from the consumption of undercooked meat is one way a UTI can be contracted from food. A food-borne UTI occurs when E. coli bacteria is consumed, excreted, and then migrates from the anus to the urethra. Poultry is a major source of the bacteria that cause urinary tract infections in people. Pork, but not beef, is also associated with increased risk. The best way to prevent UTIs from E. coli acquired from the consumption of undercooked meat is to cook the meat extremely well. Safe food handling is also important. Be sure you wash your hands with soap and hot water after handling raw poultry as well as the surfaces it has touched. Another way to acquire a UTI from food aside from ingesting it is touching the raw food and then transmitting the bacteria to yourself or others. (E. coli can contaminate food, but humans and animals can also carry and transmit the bacteria to one another.) Good hygiene is your best bet for warding off foodborne UTIs.

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