Over half of women will get a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their life. This common problem has a common solution: a short course of antibiotics should clear it up.
However, the generous use of these antibiotics has created strains of antibiotic-resistant UTI bacteria, causing a growing and worrying trend—recurrent UTIs that can’t be treated.
See Also: What Is The Best Treatment For A UTI?
What is a UTI?
A UTI is an infection that occurs in the urinary system. While the most common infections involve the lower urinary tract (bladder and urethra), they can occur in the kidneys and uterus as well. UTIs are caused by the bacteria E. coli rising from the perianal region into the urinary tract.
Because of their shorter urethra, women are at greater risk for contracting UTIs, although infections do occur in men. UTIs usually present the following symptoms:
• Needing to pee suddenly or
more often than usual
• Pain or a burning sensation
• Smelly or cloudy pee
• Blood in pee
• Pain in lower tummy
• Feeling tired and unwell
Visit a GP if you’ve been suffering any of the above symptoms for more than a few days. Some UTIs may clear up on their own or with the use of over-the-counter cranberry supplements, which contain proanthocyanidins (drinking cranberry juice doesn’t provide enough PACs and loading up on sugar often does more harm than good). Typically a short course of antibiotics is needed to treat the infection.
Nanell Mann, aged 82, began getting UTIs almost 50 years ago, following a hysterectomy after the birth of her sixth child. She would take antibiotics and get better, then get sick again and take a different type of antibiotic, over and over for decades, until the list of treatments that worked against her infections dwindled. Her UTIs were so resistant to antibiotics that nothing worked anymore.
It’s an extreme case, but this is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a worrying trend of more UTIs becoming resistant to antibiotics. Without them, doctors aren’t sure how to treat what were once easily-cured infections.
“They kind of give up on you because they don’t know what to do,” Mann said.
UTI Dos and Don’ts
To prevent UTIs, the NHS suggests wiping from front to back when using the toilet, trying to fully empty your bladder when peeing, staying hydrated, taking showers rather than baths, wearing loose cotton underwear and peeing after sex.
It also suggests avoiding perfumed bubble bath, soap or talcum powder; holding your pee; wearing tight, synthetic underwear; wearing tight jeans or trousers; and using condoms or diaphragms with spermicidal lube.
See Also: Living With Incontinence
No silver bullet
If antibiotics won’t cure UTIs, patients are out of luck—there isn’t a ‘Plan B’ for UTIs that won’t go away on their own, or with natural remedies.
“I always feel bad,” said microbiologist Matt Mulvey, “Because I feel very unable to help.” Mulvey, while unable to present a silver-bullet solution to long-suffering patients, has made some advances in the field of UTI research.
Researchers debate whether the bacteria that cause recurring UTIs come from the bladder or the gut. But through studying Mann’s case, Mulvey discovered that her bacteria were hiding in the gut, opening the door for new treatment options such as faecal transplants.
Mulvey suspects that the particular strain of E. coli, ST131, that Mann has is evolved enough to enter a dormant state to hide from antibiotics—only to wake up after the course finishes to cause yet another UTI. So they’re trying faecal transplants that target the gut microbiome. While it does seem to work temporarily, the effects wear off after around six months.
This feature was originally published in the winter ediiton of Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones, which you can read here