If you’ve ever experienced a urinary tract infection (UTI), you’ll agree that it’s one of the worst feelings in the world – first you get that uncontrollable urge to pee every couple of minutes, and then when you do pee, it hurts like crazy and the urine flow is barely a trickle. A trip to the doctor would see you undergo a urine test before receiving a prescription for antibiotics and advice to drink plenty of water to flush the UTI bacteria out of your body.
Antibiotics are usually enough to get rid of UTI, but doctors are now concerned about the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. In fact, many doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics, as chronic use is believed to be responsible for the rise of these “superbugs”. In May this year, a 49-year-old US woman was found to have a rare E-Coli infection, the first known case in that country. This superbug is said to be resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, including Colistin, which is often prescribed when other antibiotics fail.
The bad news is that the incidence of such infections caused by superbugs is expected to rise, and the worry is that there will not be drugs strong enough to get rid of them. As a result, many health experts are exploring other remedies to not only treat bacterial infections like UTI, but also prevent them from occurring to begin with.
WHAT IS UTI?
UTI affects both sexes, but it’s more common in women, due to the way the female urinary tract is designed. The infection occurs when bacteria enter the urinary tract and start to multiply in the bladder. UTI-causing bacteria are usually found in the anus. Compared to men’s urethras, women’s urethras are positioned very close to the anus, which may explain why many women experience UTI after sexual intercourse – it is thought that sex facilitates the transfer of bacteria from the women’s anus into her urinary tract. Unless the bacteria are flushed out immediately through peeing, they tend to take hold in the urinary system and cause an infection.
Other factors that can increase your UTI risk include: having sex with a new partner; using certain types of contraception, like diaphragms and spermicidal agents; menopause – due to declining levels of oestrogen; pregnancy; urinary tract abnormalities; blockages in the urinary tract, such as kidney stones, use of a catheter, and having recently undergone a urinary procedure.
According to the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre, 20 per cent of women aged 20 to 65 will experience at least one UTI episode per year, and approximately 50 per cent of women will experience UTI at least once during their life.
FEEL THE BURN
Symptoms of UTI vary according to severity, but when it starts, it presents itself as the desire to pee more often and urgently. Urinating feels painful or uncomfortable, with sufferers describing a “burning” or “scalding” sensation around where their urine flows out. Although your bladder feels full, you can only pee a few drops, and even after peeing, that feeling of fullness doesn’t go away. Some women also experience pain above their pubic bone and notice blood in their urine.
If not treated, UTI can spread to the kidneys and cause more serious complications, such as permanent kidney damage. A fever, chills, lower abdominal pain and back pain are just a few signs that the infection has reached the kidneys. If you’re pregnant, an untreated case of UTI can increase your risk of delivering a low birth weight or premature baby.
ANTIBIOTICS WORK FOR NOW – BUT ARE THEY A LONG-TERM ANSWER?
In most cases, UTI responds well to antibiotics. Most doctors also advise patients with UTI to pee as often as possible and immediately after sexual intercourse, to stay well hydrated, to wear loose-fitting underwear, and to keep the genital area clean and dry. If the full course of antibiotics is taken, the infection usually clears up after a few days.
While these drugs may work for your UTI for now, the question is, at what point will the bacteria stop responding to such treatments? This is especially important if your UTI occurs over and over again (and the infection does typically recur in the same people). One study, published in 2012 in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, looked at cases of UTI in the US between 2000 and 2010. It found that the number of UTIs caused by E-Coli that didn’t respond to the antibiotic ciprofloxacin increased five-fold. In that same period, the number of UTIs resistant to the antibiotic trimethoprim-sulfame-thoxazole also increased, from 18 per cent to 24 per cent.
Now, more than ever, health experts are desperate to find alternative treatments for UTI.
OTHER WAYS TO PREVENT & TREAT UTI
Besides drinking plenty of water, it’s thought that consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C can help relieve UTI. Vitamin C makes urine more acidic, which inhibits the growth of bacteria in the urinary tract. Many women also swear by holding a heating pad close to the genitals, to soothe any pressure and pain in the area.
Another natural remedy that’s frequently touted is cranberry juice, but there hasn’t been much evidence to support its effectiveness – until now. A landmark study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed the important role cranberries play in reducing symptomatic UTIs. Researchers found that drinking a 240ml glass of cranberry juice a day reduces symptomatic UTIs by nearly 40 per cent in women with recurrent UTIs, thereby minimising the need for antibiotics to treat the problem. One of the authors of the study, Dr Kalpana Gupta, infectious disease specialist and professor of Medicine at Boston University’s School of Medicine, believes that cranberries can help reduce the worldwide use of antibiotics and significantly improve the quality of life for women who suffer from recurrent UTI symptoms.
How does cranberry juice help? Cranberries contain a unique combination of compounds called proanthocyanidins that prevent bacteria from sticking to the walls of the urethra and causing an infection. Cranberries also contain xyloglucan oligosaccharides, which are believed to have similar anti-bacterial properties as proanthocyanidins.
While you can consume dried cranberries and cranberry extract in pill form, most of the studies about cranberries and UTI have been conducted using cranberry juice. Pure cranberry juice is exceedingly sour; sweetened versions – often called cranberry juice cocktail – are more palatable, but probably not as healthy for you. If you want to control the amount of sugar in your juice, make your own blend using frozen cranberries. Simply thaw the berries and blitz them with water. Drink it neat, sweetened with some honey or stevia, or combine it with another fruit or vegetable juice of your choice. If you purchase cranberry juice at the supermarket, look for an organic brand that’s free of preservatives and chemical additives. “Light” versions may contain natural sweeteners or less sugar than the regular versions.
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