Urinary Tract Infections Linked to Bacteria in Meat
More than half a million urinary tract infections in the U.S. each year may be caused by E. coli found in a variety of meat products, a new study suggests.
If you’re prone to urinary tract infections even when you do everything you can to prevent them from happening — like taking showers instead of baths, staying hydrated, and urinating after sex — it might be time to change up what you eat.
That’s because a new study suggests that more than half a million urinary tract infections (UTIs) in the United States each year might be caused by strains of E. coli bacteria found in meat.
“It's a pretty surprising finding, given that this kind of E. coli is not actively monitored in the food supply or among food-production animals by the USDA, FDA, or CDC in the United States,” says senior study author Lance Price, PhD, co-director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center and professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
DNA Reveals Meat Consumption May Cause Urinary Tract Infections
For the study, published in the journal One Health, scientists examined the DNA of almost 1,200 samples of E. coli taken from the urine and blood of infected individuals, as well as the DNA of more than 1,900 samples of E. coli from raw meat including chicken, turkey, and pork.
When they evaluated all of these samples in the lab, researchers found that about 8 percent of urinary tract infections may be caused by E. coli from meat, translating into as many as 640,000 UTIs each year.
One limitation of the study is that all of the samples came from a single U.S. city, and it’s possible that these results might not reflect what would happen nationwide.
How Could Eating Meat Lead to a UTI?
The results are still compelling because E. coli is the leading bacterial cause of urinary tract infections in the United States, says William Schaffner, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“It was a surprise that such a large number of urinary tract infections — over a half-million — are estimated to be caused by the E. coli bacteria which we acquire from the food we eat,” Dr. Schaffner says.
There are hundreds of different strains of E. coli, and most are harmless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, E. coli is present in the intestinal tracts of both humans and animals. But some strains can cause infections, including strains that come from animals.
These infections happen when bacteria — which could come from unclean hands or from the rectum — enter the urethra and travel to the urinary tract, according to the CDC. UTIs are more common in women, and are also more likely to occur in people with a history of previous UTIs, sexually active individuals, older adults, young children, and people who have poor hygiene (like kids going through potty training).
Common UTI symptoms include pain or burning sensations during urination, frequent urination, bloody urine, and pressure or cramping in the groin or abdomen.
Bladder infections are the most common type of UTI, but they can also lead to kidney infections that can be more serious and involve symptoms such as fever, chills, lower back pain, nausea, and vomiting.
How to Prevent UTIs
There are several ways to prevent urinary tract infections, according to the CDC:
- Urinate after sexual activity.
- Stay well hydrated.
- Take showers instead of baths.
- Limit douches, sprays or powders in the genital area.
- Wipe front to back after using the bathroom.
The new study results suggest that safe meat handling might go on this list, Dr. Price says. “All the same safe handling principles apply for this kind of E. coli as are recommended to prevent other foodborne infections,” Price says. This includes:
- Keep other foods away from areas where you handle raw meat.
- Use separate cutting boards, knives, and bowls just for raw meat.
- Cook meat thoroughly.
Doing these things will help minimize transmission of any E. coli in raw meats to other foods you eat, Price says. Cooking meats kills this bacteria, so stir frying foods together or mixing foods on your plate after you prepare meats isn’t an issue, Price notes.
Beyond this, it also helps to buy meat products that are labeled “raised without antibiotics” or “USDA organic” because if these foods do contain E. coli, it’s less likely to be a strain that is resistant to treatment with antibiotics, Price notes.
Another common hygiene tip for minimizing your exposure to E. coli from meats: “Always wash your hands and cutting surfaces thoroughly when preparing food,” Schaffner says. “Also wash your vegetables and salads thoroughly.”