If you’re a guy who’s ever had a UTI, chances are your first instinct was to get checked for an STI. But once you found out that it’s just a pesky urinary tract infection, you were instructed by nearly everyone in the close circle of friends you talk penis health with to guzzle cranberry juice until you start peeing red (or at least until the stinging stops).
Recently, however, the National Institute for Health and Care said that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that cranberry juice can actually help treat a UTI. “Instead, people should drink plenty of water or fluids and take painkillers,” reported the BBC.
But let’s start at the beginning (it’s a very good place to start). If you’re wondering exactly how someone might develop a urinary tract infection (i.e., an infection of the tube that connects your kidney to your bladder), here’s the short answer: Sex. “Bacteria [E. coli] from the colon and vagina can get into the urethra during foreplay and intercourse,” Kristine E. Whitmore, clinical associate professor of urology at Medical College of Pennsylvania-Hahnemann in Philadelphia, told Parents.com. According to Medical News Today, though older men have a higher risk of developing UTIs, it’s mostly a problem for women: “UTIs are estimated to affect around 3 percent of men worldwide each year. This means that most men will have never had a UTI, especially if they’re young,” reports Medical News Today. Meanwhile, nearly half of all women are likely to experience a UTI at least once in their lives.
Here’s where things get murky, though — like, blood-in-your-urine murky. In 2012, the BBC reported that cranberry juice can protect against urinary tract infections. “Laboratory studies have shown the anti-adhesion activity of cranberry on bladder bacteria lasts for around eight hours after ingestion, which suggests a few doses a day might be ideal,” reported Michelle Roberts.
That same year, however, a comprehensive review found that while there was a small benefit in drinking cranberry juice to help prevent UTIs for women with recurrent tract infections, when the result of a much larger study was included, the benefits weren’t statistically significant. “Given the large number of dropouts/withdrawals from studies (mainly attributed to the acceptability of consuming cranberry products particularly juice, over long periods), and the evidence that the benefit for preventing UTI is small, cranberry juice cannot currently be recommended for the prevention of UTIs,” the authors of the study concluded.
To that end, in 2016, the New York Times reported that neither cranberry juice nor cranberry capsules can help treat UTIs. “In a strongly worded editorial, Dr. Lindsay E. Nicolle, an expert on urinary tract infections, or UTIs, at the University of Manitoba, concluded that the evidence is ‘convincing that cranberry products should not be recommended as a medical intervention for the prevention of UTI.’ She added that ‘clinicians should not be promoting cranberry use by suggesting that there is proven, or even possible, benefit.’”
So… why all the debate over cranberries in the first place? Board-certified urologist Jamin Brahmbhatt tells me that it’s not even about the red stuff. “It’s not the cranberry juice that’s important but an active ingredient in it, a type of of proanthocyanidins [acidic compound found in a variety of plants],” he explains. “You’d have to drink a lot of juice to get the right amount that helps you.”
In other words, it seems we’ve all technically been taking the right chemical, but in the wrong form and in woefully inadequate amounts. Still, Brahmbhatt does say that while he doesn’t think cranberry juice is going to provide preventative benefits for a UTI, he has seen cranberry supplements help a lot of his patients, especially women with recurrent UTIs. “Not all supplements are created equal and aren’t FDA regulated; therefore, you have to go with a tried-and-tested source that’s been certified,” says Brahmbhatt. “I recommend taking NSF-certified supplements and taking the amount written on the label.”
Which isn’t always an easy rule to abide by when your pee stream feels like a string of fire.