Nov. 13, 2000 -- Even though it happened more than 10 years
ago, Mary Sander still vividly remembers her first urinary tract infection
(UTI), when an unimaginable pain wracked her abdomen. "The pain was so bad
I thought I was going to die," says Sander, now a 32-year-old clothing
designer in Reno, Nev. Medications soon brought comfort. But the agony -- more
intense than childbirth, says the mother of four -- remains fresh in her
For Sander, and an increasing number of women in the country,
that first infection is just the beginning. Experts from the National Institute
of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimate that UTIs recur in about
20% of all sufferers. And the problem is widespread: Such infections affect 8
to 10 million Americans a year, mostly women, according to the American
Foundation for Urological Diseases.
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Since infections tend to recur, many women may need multiple
rounds of antibiotics to treat them, says Frank Tally, MD, an infectious
disease specialist in Boston. And when women take one antibiotic after another,
they may be left with bacteria naturally resistant to all the drugs, he says.
However, with the proper precautions, women can help prevent UTIs from
occurring in the first place.
Bladder, Kidney, and Pain
What causes a UTI? Doctors point to the bacteria Escherichia
coli (E. coli) or Staphylococcus saprophyticus (staph) as the
usual suspects. They make their way into the urinary tract, typically through
the narrow tube that directs urine out of the body (called the urethra), often
encouraged by compressions that tend to occur during sexual intercourse.
The bacteria usually land in the bladder, causing cystitis, the
most common type of UTI. This results in pain in and around the pelvis and
lower back, as well as a burning sensation when urine -- which could be cloudy,
bloody, or foul-smelling -- is passed. Sufferers also tend to have the urge to
urinate frequently and usually get up more than once during the night to do
If the bacteria migrate higher in the body, from the bladder
into the kidneys (through connecting tubes called ureters), women may develop a
UTI called pyelonephritis. This causes pain in the middle of the back and often
fever and chills.
Prevention Is Best
Antibiotics can only do so much to alleviate these symptoms,
says Christiane Northrup, MD, a woman's health specialist in Maine. While the
drugs may eliminate the bacteria causing the infection, they also can kill
"helpful" vaginal bacteria. In turn, she says, you'll be less prepared
(at least until the helpful bacteria repopulate after the drugs are stopped) to
defend against future UTIs and yeast infections, and possibly suffer from
Once a UTI has cleared, preventing a subsequent one can avoid
another round of antibiotics and the problems it may cause, says Sander. The
National Kidney Foundation agrees. The organization recommends drinking at
least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day, which encourages you to visit the
bathroom more often and gives your body additional opportunities to flush out
any residual harmful bacteria.
Washing your genitals with soap and water every day (especially
before and after sexual intercourse), taking a shower instead of a bath, wiping
from front to back after bowel movements (to limit the introduction of
intestinal bacteria), urinating after sexual intercourse, and urinating when
you need to rather than holding it are also helpful in limiting unwanted
bacterial migration up the urethra to the bladder.