They can develop without warning, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Or they can follow a definite pattern -- mimicking a menstrual cycle, occurring after sex, or for some women, every time they get a gynecological exam. The problem is UTIs -- short for urinary tract infections, a problem affecting upwards off 26 million women every year, many between the ages of 18 and 35. And while men can develop these infections as well, women, it seems, are up to 25 times more likely to be affected. One reason, say experts, has to do with our basic anatomy. In short, a woman's body makes it far easier for bacteria to invade the urinary tract and cause problems. Indeed, the female urethra -- the tube that carries urine out of the body -- is only a scant 1 inch long, making it relatively easy for any bacteria in the V zone to find its way to the urinary tract.
But where does that bacteria come from to begin with?
You may be surprised to learn that most of the time it's right from your own body! Indeed, while there are a number of micro-organisms capable of causing a UTI, (including enterobacteria, pseudomonas and staphylococcus), most infections are the result of the E. coli bacteria, which is found naturally in the digestive tract, in stool, around the anus and on the skin between the anus and the vagina.
When, due to any number of situations E coli -- or any bacteria -- make their way inside the urethra, they adhere to the cell wall and begin to multiply. In not too long a time they begin to travel through the short tubing to the bladder, where they attach to the lining and cause an irritation. This, in turn, causes the bladder to begin contracting as if trying to push the unwanted bacteria from its cell walls.
It is actually these contractions that trigger the urgent need to urinate, which often accompanies a UTI. These same bacteria also irritates the urethra, so much so that when it comes in contact with the normal acid found in urine, an intense burning sensation (called dysuria) can occur.
What you need to know
According to the National Bladder Foundation (NBF), up to 4 percent of pregnant women develop UTIs. Indeed, hormonal shifts, as well as the physiological changes that occur as the baby grows, can make it easier to for bacteria to proliferate and quickly travel through the urinary tract. As such, UTIs which occur during pregnancy are often more severe, sometimes leading to a kidney infection. If not treated early on, this can threaten a mother's life, as well as increase the risk of premature labor.
For this reason, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists suggests your first pregnancy exam should always include a urine culture for infection, and you should be tested at intervals throughout your pregnancy.
If you should develop the symptoms of a UTI, the NBF says seek medical help immediately. While many antibiotics are not recommended for use during pregnancy, a few are effective and safe. If your infection is particularly severe, you can expect your doctor to recommend that you continue taking low doses of antibiotic for several weeks after your UTI clears.
Under no circumstances should you ever take a medicine previously prescribed for a UTI you had before getting pregnant. Instead, consult your doctor as soon as symptoms develop and take only the medications prescribed for you during pregnancy.
And while you may be tempted to let your UTI go without treatment, particularly if symptoms are not severe, this could be a big mistake. According to studies on some 80,000 women presented at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Conference on Birth Defects in October 2002, leaving a UTI untreated during pregnancy can increase your baby's risk of mental retardation -- up to 40 percent, say researchers from The University of South Carolina.
So, see your doctor at the first sign of symptoms and don't be hesitant to take any medication he or she prescribes.
In addition, you should be aware that your risk of a UTI also increases in the 48 hours following delivery. Because your body needs to get rid of a lot of excess fluid quickly following birth, your urine output increases, sometimes to as much as 4 cups at a time.
Giving in to that frequent urge to urinate may help you avoid a UTI. At the same time, some women find it difficult to urinate after childbirth, thus allowing not only the excess fluid to build, but also increasing the risk that bacteria can develop. When this is the case, your doctor may recommend a catheter (a thin, flexible tube) to remove the urine from your bladder.
This will not only help reduce your risk of urinary tract infections, but also make it possible to test your urine to insure that an infection has not set in.