Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common, especially for women. More than half of women will have at least one UTI at some point in their life and about one quarter will experience at least two UTIs in 6 months or three or more every year.
Men, too, as well as children, get UTIs, just not as often. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office on Women’s Health, women get UTIs up to 30 times more often than men do.
According to a report from CNN, between 6-8 million UTIs occur in the U.S. annually.
Not only are UTIs common, but they can be quite serious, particularly for an elderly population or those with dementia, especially if overlooked or misdiagnosed and left untreated. On the other hand, some UTIs are more of an annoying inconvenience, uncomfortable and painful, but readily treatable.
What is a UTI?
UTIs are infections that occur when bacteria (i.e., E.coli) find their way into the urinary tract—which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Generally, the journey for a UTI starts at the urethra, the small tubes that urine passes through to exit the body. In women, the urethra is shorter and much closer to the bladder than it is for men, making it easier for bacteria to discover a path to the bladder and potentially travel further to the other parts of the urinary tract.
The most common UTIs are those found in the bladder (cystitis), while those in the kidney (pyelonephritis) are less common but usually more serious.
Shorter urethras explain why women are more prone to UTIs than men. But what that tidbit doesn’t explain is why some experts are suggesting some vitamins as potential drivers behind UTIs. Huh? That’s what we said.
What is the Relationship Between Vitamins and UTIs?
Before we get to that, a recent, and interesting, study as reported by CNN tagged bacteria from meat as potentially responsible for more than half a million UTIs in the U.S. annually, more than was previously suspected.
We mention this study because foodborne bacteria—and vitamins—are not normally among the reasons you think of when you think about a UTI.
However, you may have read some anecdotal reports (or possibly heard about some research?) that supposedly ties high amounts of vitamin C, in particular, to bladder irritation. You might have personally experienced this yourself. However, an irritated bladder can be caused by a number of things, including high acid food or drink, caffeine, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, just to name a few.
Further, bladder irritation can be a symptom of several bladder-related health conditions—including Interstitial Cystitis (IC) or Bladder Pain Syndrome (BPS) or Overactive Bladder (OAB)—and may or may not be a UTI. The latter is an infection, while IC, BPS and OAB are chronic medical conditions. You can read more here, here, and here—but don’t try to self-diagnose those conditions, see a doctor.
So, it’s a bit of a stretch to point to high doses of vitamin C supplements as causing UTIs. However, if you are experiencing bladder irritation, and you’re taking high doses of vitamin C (supplements or lots and lots of orange juice), it’s common sense to lower your dose, or eliminate your vitamin C supplements until you can see your doctor who will hopefully determine the cause of your bladder irritation.
Ironically, there is some evidence that says that vitamin C may decrease the risk of developing UTIs, according to information posted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which says this in regard to that evidence: Consider 100 mg daily [of vitamin C for prevention of UTIs]. The post makes another recommendation, but that dose seems too high for us to repeat as a general recommendation in a blog post.
And this post explains that vitamin C (ascorbic acid) may help reduce UTIs by making your urine more acidic, and when you use it as a supplement it may enhance the effect of methenamine (an antibiotic). Both of these, continues the post, are not first-choice options for UTI prevention but may help those with chronic UTIs when other solutions don’t.
It’s unclear both whether vitamin C causes UTIs or helps prevent UTIs.
There is, however, emerging research that links low vitamin D levels with UTIs. We’ve blogged about it before.
For instance, this recent study reminds us that vitamin D plays a potential role in regulating our body’s immune system, helping prevent infections including those in the urinary tract. The case-control study looked at a study population of women of child-bearing age (between 17-52 years old) with UTIs and a control group without UTIs to determine what role, if any, vitamin D levels would have on UTIs.
The study results linked UTIs in women of reproductive age with vitamin D deficiency, suggesting that low vitamin D levels might be a factor in developing a UTI. “Furthermore, with the increasing development of antimicrobial resistance in gram-positive and -negative bacteria being a worldwide concern, vitamin D supplements could be used in combination with antimicrobials to improve the management and therapy of UTI, especially in cases of multi-drug-resistant infections,” the authors noted.
This study looked specifically at whether there was an association between vitamin D and the recurrence of UTI in premenopausal women. The results led the researchers to conclude that “…recurrent UTIs in premenopausal women are associated with vitamin D deficiency.”
However, not all the research has come to the same conclusions. For instance, among its findings, this 2019 meta-analysis suggested that vitamin D insufficiency was associated with a significantly increased risk of having a UTI and also found that vitamin D levels were significantly lower in the UTI group.
Yet, the authors of the meta-analysis noted several limitations in their review and called for more clinical trials and studies to determine the effects of vitamin D supplements on the prevention of UTIs.
So, although the science about vitamin D deficiency and UTIs is not conclusive, it’s simple enough to add a vitamin D supplement to your daily nutritional routine for all the many benefits that are already established, especially if your vitamin D levels are low. How do you know if they’re low? Regular testing, either through a lab request from your doctor, or a simple at-home blood test (OmegaQuant offers one!) can provide that answer.
Risk Factors for Developing a UTI
In addition to women being more likely than men to develop a UTI, here are some other risk factors that up the ante according to the HHS Office on Women’s Health:
- If you’re sexually active, be aware that intercourse, anal sex, and other genital penetration (e.g., with fingers or sex toys) can be bacteria-drivers to the urethra. A woman’s urethra is in close proximity to her vagina and anus, areas where UTI-causing bacteria find a welcoming host for growth.
- If you have an uncircumcised penis, the uncut foreskin makes a more accommodating place to host bacteria, compared to a cut penis, so be religious about practicing good hygiene in this area.
- If you are pregnant, those pregnancy hormones make UTIs more of a possibility. And, some pregnant women are not fully able to empty their bladder, thanks to an expanding uterus (with fetus) resting heavy on top of the bladder. Apparently, leftover urine with bacteria can lead to a UTI.
- If you are hoping not to get pregnant by using spermicides with condoms or a diaphragm or just using a diaphragm, you may be interfering with or eliminating the good bacteria that help prevent UTIs.
- If you are post-menopausal, your vaginal tissue gets thinner and dryer, providing a breeding ground of sorts for the “bad” bacteria to set up shop, posting a “welcome” sign for a UTI.
- If you have diabetes, you may have the one-two combo of a lowered immune system and nerve damage that leaves urine in your bladder (see pregnant above).
For more risk factors and other interesting information about UTIs, click here.
Symptoms of a UTI
Following are some symptoms of UTIs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If your UTI infection is in your bladder:
- Pain or burning while urinating
- Frequent urination
- Feeling the need to urinate despite having an empty bladder
- Bloody urine
- Pressure or cramping in the groin or lower abdomen
If your UTI infection is in your kidney:
- Lower back pain or pain in the side of your back
- Nausea or vomiting
When Should you Seek Medical Attention for a UTI?
Although there are some home remedies that may help for UTI prevention or discomfort, here are some reasons to seek medical attention either for your UTI and/or to determine whether your symptoms are, in fact, a UTI.
For example, the CDC suggests that fever is the most common sign of a UTI in infants and toddlers. It further advises that if your child is younger than 3 months old and has a fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher, speak with a healthcare practitioner right away.
Even for younger children who can talk, they may not be able to explain their symptoms; therefore, if you suspect that your child has a UTI, call the pediatrician or other healthcare practitioner.
If your symptoms are not improving after a few days or are either severe or getting worse, it’s time to seek medical attention. If you’re someone with recurring UTIs, get your healthcare practitioner involved.
Pain in the sides of your lower back, fever, chills or pain while urinating are signs that might indicate that your UTI has moved to your kidneys, says the American Kidney Fund, so get in touch with your doctor immediately.
Caregivers should be on alert for UTI symptoms in dementia patients and the elderly as UTIs can be especially dangerous in these populations. A high fever, confusion, or being disoriented are signs you shouldn’t ignore. Getting medical attention sooner rather later is important.
Diagnosing a UTI and Treatment Options
Your healthcare practitioner will likely order a urine sample analysis or take a urine culture to determine if you have a UTI, says the Urology Care Foundation.
If a UTI is determined, your doctor will likely start you on an antibiotic regimen. Be sure to finish the duration of the prescription, even if you’re feeling better right away. It’s not unusual for the doctor to extend the prescription or change to a different antibiotic if you’re not getting relief.
More complicated UTIs may require a longer course of antibiotics or a hospital stay with antibiotics being administered intravenously (IV).