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Cut Urinary Tract Infection Risks

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are behind many recurrent UTIs. What can a woman do to reduce risks?
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WebMD Feature

When chemical engineering professor Terri Camesano was in college, she lived the life of an ambitious young scientist. "That period was characterized by stress," she says, and often, she was too busy to drink enough fluids. The result: repeated urinary tract infections.

Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are marked by frequent urination, pain, and burning -- and are much more common in women than men. Some women, such as Camesano, get recurrent ones, meaning three or more per year. To complicate matters, rising rates of antibiotic resistance are making some urinary tract infections tougher to treat, putting women at risk of repeated bouts.

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Yet, with lifestyle and diet changes -- and in some instances medication -- women can take steps to help reduce their risks of urinary tract infections.

Urinary Tract Infections: Causes

Most urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract and start to multiply in the bladder. Women may be more prone to UTIs than men because their urethras are closer to the anus, the source of UTI-causing bacteria.

Many women find that sexual intercourse triggers an infection though researchers aren't sure why. Studies suggest that women who use a diaphragm are more likely to develop a urinary tract infectionurinary tract infection, while other research shows that women whose partners use a condom with spermicidal foam also have overgrowth of bacteria within the vagina, perhaps making them more prone to infections.

Whatever the cause of urinary tract infections, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are raising many women's risks of repeated infection.

Antibiotic Resistance: Why Your UTI Risks Are Rising

Nowadays, doctors are concerned that urinary tract infections have joined the long list of bacterial infections growing resistant to antibiotics. The more frequently that bacteria are exposed to certain antibiotic, the greater the chance resistant strains will develop.

Scientists worry about staying ahead of the bugs -- and they're also concerned there are not enough new antibiotics being developed.

In the past, "there was generally something new on the shelf to try," says Walter Stamm, MD, a University of Washington professor of medicine who is conducting NIH-sponsored research on recurrent UTIs. That's not as true today, he adds.

Urinary tract infections can affect all of the organs in the urinary system: the urethra, bladder, ureters, or kidneys. About 85% of UTIs in women are caused by bacteria, such as E. coli, Stamm says. In women, E. coli can spread to the urethra from the vagina or intestines.

In most cases, antibiotic treatment is effective against urinary tract infections, Stamm says. But not always.

According to one recent study published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, many drugs are no longer a sure bet against UTI-causing E. coli. Scientists from the University of Manitoba gathered urine samples from patients, mostly women, at 41 U.S. and Canadian hospitals. Ampicillin, one drug that's no longer commonly used, had a resistance rate of nearly 38%.

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