I remember my very first urinary tract infection like it was yesterday: I was only a pre-teen, and it struck on Christmas Eve. I spent most of the night in the waiting room of the local children's emergency care clinic with my mom, hovering in pain over a chair and trying not to cry. As I was about to learn first-hand, women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections (UTIs) than men because our pee parts are closer to the outside of the body and therefore more exposed to germs, like E. Coli from the bowels (lovely). Sometimes these painful infections become nightmarishly recurring, but a new study suggests that merely taking ibuprofen can prevent UTIs.
Unfortunately, after you've had one UTI, you become more likely to experience a UTI again in the future (as I can attest, given my most recent bout of UTI delight which came on quickly just before an hours-long train ride for a close friend's out-of-town wedding). That's because a UTI leaves immune cells, called "neutrophils," in its wake. These cells remain embedded in the walls of the bladder and regrettably seem to provide a toehold for bacteria to stick and grow there the next time.
Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis found that the lingering immune cells respond to an immune system protein called "COX-2." If you block some of the COX-2, then the neutrophil growth is weakened, meaning that there are fewer neutrophils for bacteria to grow on in the future. And, as it turns out, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen have COX-2 blocking properties. Although these studies were conducted using mice, researchers plan to do a larger study using human subjects in the future, and the theory looks promising. Recurring UTIs may turn out to be a result of too strong of an immune response, and not too weak of a response, after all.
Even over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen can have serious side effects and health consequences, though. If you'd like to stick with the natural and time-tested home preventative for UTIs, cranberry juice, I recommend looking for the unsweetened variety at the health foods store. It's kind of expensive, but that's because it's not diluted with cheap and sugary apple juice like "cranberry juice cocktail." Try your unsweetened cranberry juice cut with some filtered or soda water and a spritz of lime (vodka is optional). And don't skip seeing your doctor just because you've had a UTI before — many of these infections will still require treatment with antibiotics if they grow to the point that they're symptomatic.