You know the symptoms: the constant urge to pee, the hot-poker sensation when you do. Yes, it's the urinary tract infection (UTI), one of the most common bacterial infections in the developed world. It's so common, in fact, that some women plead with their gynecologist to prescribe antibiotics over the phone so they can avoid yet another trip to the doctor's office. But it turns out that an office visit -- and the urine test that can go with it -- may be crucial. Why? UTIs occur when gastrointestinal bacteria move into the urinary tract, and research suggests that some of those bacteria are being introduced to the gut from food contaminated with strains of E. coli -- a type of infection known as a foodborne UTI, or FUTI. Because these kinds of E. coli don't cause gastrointestinal illness, you can have them without the symptoms typically associated with food poisoning.
Researchers at George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health examined all available brands of chicken, turkey and pork at every major grocery store in Flagstaff, Arizona, and found that 17 percent of the samples tested positive for FUTI-causing E. coli. Over the same period, they tested the bacteria in urine and blood samples of local UTI sufferers. "We found substantial overlap between the E. coli strains contaminating food and those infecting people," says Lance B. Price, PhD, director of GW's Antibiotic Resistance Action Center. "In some cases, the strains were nearly indistinguishable, strongly suggesting that the infections were foodborne." The most worrisome part: Many of the bacteria that cause a FUTI have become resistant to several antibiotics routinely used to treat classic UTIs -- thus the importance of a urine culture. "Ask your doctor to test for which specific bacteria are causing your infection, so he or she can prescribe an antibiotic that's likely to work," says Price. But beyond prescription drugs, surprising research is uncovering new ways to prevent or help fight common UTIs:
Consume pure cranberry juice.
Cranberry really does work -- but skip the cranberry cocktail (which is often a mix of different juices). The bacteria that cause some UTIs have a little tail that allows them to spread through the urethra and bladder. A lab study found that exposure to cranberry inhibits the growth of that tail. "You want the most potent effect, so you need as pure a cranberry product as possible, which you're likelier to get with pure cranberry juice," says Nathalie Tufenkji, PhD, an associate professor in McGill University's Department of Chemical Engineering.
Add maple syrup extract to the Rx.
Tufenkji's research team also discovered that a special maple syrup extract -- without sugar or water -- could give a big boost to antibiotics in the future. "The extract makes the bacterial membrane more permeable, so the antibiotic can get in more easily," explains Tufenkji.
Make your urine more alkaline.
Despite what you may have heard, there's little evidence that vitamin C kills off bacteria by making your urine more acidic. "You actually want your urine's pH closer to neutral because that may limit bacterial growth," says Jeffrey P. Henderson, MD, PhD, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis. And what you eat does matter: "The polyphenols in brightly colored fruits and vegetables have the ability to combine with normal gut bacteria to convert into compounds that help fight UTIs."