Could Meat Be Causing Your UTIs?

A new study suggests that E. coli bacteria in meat could be contributing to urinary tract infections.

Urinary tract infections are one of the most common infections people (especially women) face, with nearly half of American women ending up with a UTI in their lifetime, according to the Urology Care Association. But a new study points to a potential culprit that could be causing up to 640,000 of the 8 million UTIs each year: E. coli found in meat.

The George Washington University study compared the types of E. coli found in 1,188 UTI cases in Flagstaff, Ariz., with E. coli in 1,923 meat samples purchased from local grocery stores. Out of the UTIs associated with E. coli (85 percent of the total UTI cases), 8 percent could be matched to strains found in the local meat supply. (And there was plenty of E. coli to be found and analyzed. The researchers discovered that nearly 82 percent of the meat samples tested had some E. coli contaminating it!)


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"Several past studies indicated that there was a connection between foodborne E. coli and UTI, but quantifying the connection—that is, estimating the number of foodborne UTIs—proved extremely difficult," says Lance B. Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University and one of the study's lead researchers. "We had to develop a whole new analytical approach to answer this question. It took us 10 years to complete this study."

While concerns about typical food poisoning with its stomach-churning symptoms may encourage you to keep food safety (and proper meat-handling) top of mind—and might encourage you to invest in a really good meat thermometer—this study puts contaminated meat products on the map as a source of another potentially serious infection. The study suggests that while food is regularly tested for the E. coli strains that most commonly cause gastrointestinal infections, there are new strains that should be monitored because of their connection to urinary tract infections, according to the study's news release.

The dangers of urinary tract infections

While most UTIs resolve with antibiotics, a small portion become more serious, spreading into the bladder, kidneys, or bloodstream, according to the CDC. The bacteria are also much more likely to infect women (thanks to our anatomy), children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. And E. coli infections can be deadly—according to the study's news release, between 36,000 and 40,000 people die from E. coli bloodstream infections in the U.S. each year,

“People often dismiss bladder infections as minor annoyances, but the bladder is a major gateway to patients’ kidneys and bloodstream,” said Cindy Liu, associate professor of environmental and occupational health co-director of the GW Antibiotic Resistance Action Center and former researcher at PMI. “People over 55 and vulnerable populations such as cancer and transplant patients are at the highest risk for life-threatening blood infections, but young, healthy people are also at risk.”

Another concern with these new findings? A different study found that 92 percent of UTIs are caused by bacteria that are resistant to one common antibiotic, and 80 percent were resistant to two drugs. Antibiotic resistance makes it harder to find medications that solve the problem—and many of the treatments that do work with these multi-drug resistant bacteria require hospitalization to receive them.

"Some of the foodborne E. coli were resistant to drugs that clinicians would use to treat these infections," Price says. "Thankfully, the FDA limits the kinds of antibiotics that can be used in food animals in the United States. What really concerns me today are the kind of E. coli/UTIs that someone might pick up traveling in countries where there are virtually no controls on the antibiotics that are being used in animals. If I was someone prone to UTIs, I would think twice about traveling to Southeast Asia, India, and parts of South America."

Symptoms of UTIs

Unlike foodborne E. coli infections in the digestive tract, which have a typical incubation period of three to four days, according to the Mayo Clinic, it can take longer for the infection to migrate into the urinary tract. “It can a be a long time between your exposure to the meat and the time that you actually got the urinary tract infection,” Price told The Washington Post.

The most common symptom of a bladder infection is a burning or painful sensation when you pee, but you may also feel the need to urinate frequently, or experience painful cramping or bloody urine. If it progresses to your kidneys, you may end up with fever and chills, lower back pain, and nausea or vomiting, according to the CDC.

The takeaway

Your best bet to minimize the chances of another urinary tract infection? According to the CDC, you should focus on good hygiene (including peeing after sex), skipping long baths, avoiding the use of sprays and powders in the genital area, and drinking lots of water. And perhaps you might want to add to that list making sure your burgers or chicken are well-cooked.

"For people prone to UTIs, I would recommend doubling down on kitchen-hygiene practices whenever I was handling raw meat and poultry," Price says. "I would also choose meat products that are labeled 'raised without antibiotics' or 'organic' or any other USDA-supported label that indicates that the animals were not given antibiotics. Several studies have shown that those products tend to have fewer antibiotic-resistant E. coli on them as compared to conventional products. Finally, people may just choose to not bring raw meat products in their kitchen at all."

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