Scientists point to a surprising cause of some UTIs: E. coli bacteria found in meat.

A new study used statistical modeling to assess whether E. coli bacteria, a known source of many foodborne illnesses, could cause hundreds of thousands of UTIs in the United States each year – which would represent a small fraction of UTI cases, but significant enough to intrigue and, in some cases, worry experts.

The new study looked at chicken, turkey and pork in particular, as previous studies suggested these foods may be contaminated with strains of E. coli that can cause a urinary tract infection.

A UTI occurs when bacteria enter the urethra and infect the urinary tract. Sometimes an infection develops due to poor hygiene (such as not wiping properly) or having sex, and some people are more prone than others to developing an infection because of their anatomy or their genetic heritage.

UTIs can be pernicious and painful. People who have it may experience symptoms such as discomfort when urinating or a frequent need to urinate; they may experience cramping, fatigue, or a stinging sensation during intercourse. According to Dr. Monica Woll Rosen, obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, some people may experience “urinary hesitation,” which is an urge to urinate that does not produce no urine. Urinary tract infections affect both men and women, but are more common in women because their urethra is shorter.

Symptoms of a UTI are likely the same regardless of the source of the infection, says Dr. Monica Woll Rosen. Although the vast majority of UTIs are mild and treatable, in rare cases UTIs can be serious or even fatal, which is why researchers are so determined to find out what causes them.

How can food cause a UTI?

A foodborne UTI begins the same way as most UTIs: when E. coli present in the gut migrates from the anus to the urethra, says Dr. Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and one of the authors of the new study.

Most of us carry E. coli bacteria in our intestines, says Dr. James Johnson, professor of infectious diseases and lead researcher in urinary tract infections at the University of Minnesota, and one of the authors of the ‘study.

“As long as they stay in their place in the intestine, everyone is happy,” says Dr. Johnson. It’s only when they mess up and go where they shouldn’t be that trouble can arise. »

Other foods, including plants, are likely to harbor a strain of E. coli that cause urinary tract infections, but these strains seem to be found more often in meats than in other foods, Dr. Price said.

There is no way to determine the source of a UTI based on symptoms, although the likelihood of being infected from a non-food source of E. coli is much larger than that of being from a food source, Dr. Johnson said. Other bacteria can also cause urinary tract infections.

How to reduce the risk of foodborne UTI?

The results of this study don’t mean you should immediately change your eating habits, says Dr. Michelle Van Kuiken, a urologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “There is no one-to-one correlation” between meat consumption and UTIs, she says, adding that she sees many patients with recurrent UTIs who are vegetarians or vegans. But further research could shed light on how diet can influence infection risk.

The recent findings should remind people to take extra care when cooking meat, says Dr. Lance Price.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking basic steps to prepare food safely and prevent potential exposure to E. coli, including washing hands before, during, and after cooking, Use separate cutting boards for raw meats and other foods such as fruits and vegetables, ensure meats are cooked to the correct temperature, and refrigerate foods adequately.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive to associate kitchen hygiene with preventing UTIs, Dr. Johnson explains that new research on strains of E. coli bacteria show that these measures can potentially prevent infections, as can urinating after sex, hydrating and drying properly.

“Most people don’t really understand how UTIs happen,” he said. “They’re coming, that’s all. »