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Women's Health

September 2013

Treating UTIs: Antibiotics May Not Be Necessary

Many women are familiar with the unpleasant signs of a urinary tract infection, or UTI. A constant urge to go. A burning sensation when using the bathroom. These symptoms and others often send women to their doctor for treatment. The usual remedy: antibiotics-although a recent study suggests they may not always be needed.

Photo of a doctor talking with a woman who is wearing an exam gown

Infection from without

A UTI may occur when germs, such as bacteria, invade your urinary tract-the system that removes waste and excess water from your body. Often, your body is able to fight off these harmful bacteria. But not always. When it doesn't, you may notice the following symptoms:

  • Burning pain when urinating

  • Frequent need or urge to urinate

  • Cloudy, bloody, or foul-smelling urine

  • Urine leaks

  • Fever and chills

Anyone can develop a UTI, but women are four times more likely to suffer this type of infection. That's partly because of body structure. A woman's urethra-the tube that empties urine-is shorter in length. It's also closer to the rectum. As a result, bacteria can more easily enter the urinary tract.

Antibiotics or not?

Treatment for a UTI typically includes an antibiotic. But these medications pose some risks. Many can cause side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. Experts are also growing more concerned about antibiotic resistance-when bacteria become immune to an antibiotic's healing effects. This situation can make it harder to eliminate bacteria in a person's body.

Delaying or avoiding antibiotics may be a suitable option. So indicates a recent small study in the journal BMC Family Practice. Researchers followed the treatment of 176 women with UTI symptoms. More than one-third of the women were asked to not use antibiotics. Of those participants, 71 percent reported feeling better one week later. These results echo past research that found similar symptom improvement in women who immediately used antibiotics and those who didn't.

If you have symptoms of a UTI, it's important to see your doctor. He or she can best decide if your symptoms warrant antibiotics. Severe or repeat infections are more likely to require medication to cure them. Symptoms usually subside within a few days.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.


Preventing UTIs

About 20 percent of young women with a UTI will develop another one. It's also not uncommon for some women to have more than three UTIs in a year. To help prevent such an infection, follow these tips:

  • Drink lots of fluid, especially water. It will help flush out harmful bacteria from your urinary tract.

  • Practice proper bathroom hygiene. Wipe from front to back. And don't hold your urine. That allows bacteria to linger. Go to the bathroom as soon as you feel the urge.

  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes. They can trap moisture close to your body and encourage bacterial growth. Cotton underwear is best.

  • Adjust your sex habits. Specifically, urinate after sex to wash away any germs. Also consider changing your birth control. Some kinds-including diaphragms and spermicides-can prompt bacterial production.

And what about cranberries? A recent review of past research on the effectiveness of cranberry-containing products showed they may reduce the risk of getting UTIs.


Learn more about urinary tract infections with thisquiz.

Online Resources

American Academy of Family Physicians - Urinary Tract Infections

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases - What I Need to Know About Urinary Tract Infections

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