Life is never reallllllly the same after your first UTI, right? That one-two punch—the burning sensation when you pee, chased by the urge to pee again approximately six seconds after you flush—sears itself in your memory. Years after your first UTI, you'll be sitting in a meeting wanting to pee, realize you just peed 20 minutes ago, and although you really don't have a UTI because you would know, you connect the timeline dots and the anxiety creeps up in your throat: omgdoihaveauti?
For the one in five American women who experience them, UTIs are mentally scarring like that. Total dread inducers: painful, uncomfortable, and mind-consuming things that gnaw at you until they're treated properly. Of course, if left untreated, they can turn into much more serious kidney infections, but (thankfully?) they're so annoying that most women go marching to the doctor for professional treatment (i.e., antibiotics) immediately.
Except the ones who head off to the grocery store instead, in search of cranberry juice, which has long been the go-to homeopathic "cure" for anyone trying to battle a UTI. Most females are familiar with cranberries' rumored curative properties—which do have some basis in science. Cranberries contain an active ingredient called proanthocyanidins, or PACS, that can keep bacteria from binding to the walls of the bladder and urinary tract, theoretically preventing infection. But here's the thing: while cranberry products have been rumored to prevent infection, they have never, ever been shown to treat an infection. That's where women seem to get mixed up: thinking that after the fact the cranberry will help.
As for prevention: How much can it really help?
"The evidence for cranberry juice for the prevention of UTIs has become increasingly weaker the more we study it," said Dr. Marc Levin, a physician at Sidney Hilman/Phillips Family Practice of the Institute for Family Health. "Specifically, cranberry juice and similar products do not seem to significantly lower the incidence of symptomatic UTIs." That's because the cranberry juice that your grocery store stocks doesn't have enough of those all-important PACs to prevent bacteria from sticking where it shouldn't, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Not cranberry juice cocktail, and not even "100% juice" cranberry drinks—the latter of which usually relies on added grape and apple juices to sweeten the overwhelmingly tart cranberry.
Even if you went to a health food store and bought 100 percent pure cranberry juice (so unpleasantly tart to most palates that the label recommends drinking only three ounces of it daily, diluted in eight ounces of water), you'd still need to drink a lot to get the necessary amount of PACs to be effective. And if you're drinking that much of the fruit juice, it could be enough to cause other problems like excess calories, sugar, and gastrointestinal issues. So juice chugging is not exactly a viable way to prevent UTIs.
Alternatively, you might think you could just reach for the cranberry capsules for prevention. We've all seen those AZO tabs in the "feminine needs" aisle, and they've gotta be more concentrated with PACS, right? Sure, and it is true that a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that cranberry capsules reduced the risk of UTIs by 50 percent in women who had a catheter during surgery. Yet—like cranberry juice—cranberry capsules work preventatively, and won't help if you already have an infection. That's when you need to scamper to the doctor for a diagnosis and a prescription.
There are other ways to prevent UTIs, though, according to the Mayo Clinic, which include making sure to wipe from front to back after you pee, drinking plenty of liquids to encourage regular urination, and avoiding irritating products like douches and feminine deodorant spray.
Perhaps the most important tip for UTI-inflicted women in a certain subset, though, has nothing to with cranberry juice at all. Consider this stat: "Nearly 80 percent of all urinary tract infections in premenopausal women occur within 24 hours of intercourse," reports The New York Times. And that, really, is what many women need to be thinking about: Sex can push UTI-causing bacteria into the urethra. So to prevent a UTI, the best, most effective thing to do is to pee after sex to help clear things out. It'll help prevent a UTI more than any cranberry juice, concentrate, or capsule...combined.
This article originally appeared on Elle.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.