The Rising Danger of UTIs: How the Health Industry Is Failing Women

UTI Belatina Feature

Women have plenty of reasons to worry in terms of our health. We have to deal with monthly PMS and periods, pregnancy (or an inability to get pregnant), childbirth, postpartum issues, and the risk of breast cancer, cervical cancer, and ovarian cancer. And that barely even scratches the surface in terms of women’s serious health concerns. While you’re at it, let’s go ahead and add to that ever-growing list an increased risk of developing a UTI, which is problematic enough on its own, but it has become increasingly more concerning now that UTIs are becoming resistant to common antibiotic treatments. Yes, you could (and probably will) get a UTI at some point, and yes, there’s a chance that the drug treatments you are prescribed will not work. As if we don’t have enough to worry about.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in any part of your urinary system — your kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract, which includes the bladder and the urethra. 

Women are at an increased risk of contracting a UTI, both thanks to our anatomy (why oh WHY is our urethra so damn close to all our other holes) and thanks to our activity (Newsflash: Sex can increase a woman’s risk of all sorts of infections), both of which can make UTIs more likely to occur. No matter how you look at it, once again women frequently have to deal with health issues that men will never even have to consider. And while UTI s are very common — if you’ve had one, or ten, or twenty, then you know they can happen a lot, and they suck — they aren’t considered to be terribly dangerous (albeit inconvenient and uncomfortable). 

Until now. Because recent research is showing that these infections are responding less to treatment as resistance to antibiotics grows; and that, my friends, is extremely concerning for women everywhere. While bladder infections might be annoying, they typically aren’t life-threatening; but if that infection spreads to your kidneys there could be serious consequences. 

Why Are UTIs More Common in Women?

Let’s be clear: Anyone can get a UTI. Men. Women. Children. Adults. Even dogs. Literally anyone with a urethra, bladder, and urinary tract can get an infection in those parts of the body. That said, they are far more common among women. In fact, more than half of women will have at least one UTI at some point in their life, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Women’s Health division.

UTIs occur more often than not when bacteria enters the urinary tract through the urethra and then multiplies in the bladder. The most common type of UTI, called cystitis, is an infection in the bladder. Another common form of UTI is urethritis, or infection of the urethra. UTIs are often caused by E. coli (a type of bacteria commonly found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract) entering the urinary tract. As you might have guessed based on basic learnings from anatomy or sex-ed classes back in the day, this happens more to women because their urethra is closer to the vagina and the anus, and their urethra is also shorter than a man’s, so it is easier for bacteria to get into the bladder. 

And while UTIs can occur due to poor bathroom hygiene (women, hear us now: wipe front to back always!), they can also occur from sexual intercourse, when germs and bacteria are being swapped and moved around and can be transferred from other areas, such as the vagina, to the urethra.

Again, UTIs can happen to anyone. But risk factors specific to women for UTIs include:

Female anatomy – a woman has a shorter urethra than a man does, so bacteria doesn’t need to travel as far to reach the bladder.

Sexual activity – sexually active women tend to have more UTIs than do women who aren’t sexually active due to the spread of germs during intercourse.

Certain types of birth control – women who use diaphragms for birth control may be at higher risk, as well as women who use spermicidal agents, which can kill the healthy kinds of bacteria that help prevent infection.

Menopause – after menopause, a decline in estrogen causes changes in the urinary tract and vagina, causing tissue to become thin and dry, which makes you more vulnerable to infection.

UTIs Are More Than Just a Pain, They’re Also Getting Harder to Treat

Yes, UTIs can be extremely painful, and yes, they can be VERY annoying to live through. But considering the latest reports of antibiotic resistance and lack of effective drug treatments, the concern goes beyond temporary discomfort. 

In terms of symptoms, UTIs often involve a persistent need to urinate, a painful burning sensation when you pee, cloudy-looking urine or blood in the urine, and pelvic pain, especially in women. While none of those symptoms are good, they’re not usually life-threatening. But that does not mean we shouldn’t be concerned about UTIs. 

Recently experts have been noticing that some UTIs are becoming resistant to antibiotic treatments, so those drugs no longer work to cure the infection. That does not mean that the bacteria is resistant to all drugs, but it no longer responds to the drugs that have worked to treat a UTI in the past. According to a recent article in the New York  Times, the majority of UTIs are now resistant to one or more antibiotics, including ampicillin, a drug once used commonly to effectively treat UTIs, which has since been abandoned due to its inability to clear up the infection. 

Experts note that the only way to know if your type of UTI and your specific bacterial infection is treatable or will be resistant to drugs is to get a urine culture so you know exactly what you are dealing with. Yes, the lab results can take days, but otherwise doctors will be guessing what antibiotic to prescribe and there’s a good chance the medication might not work. It’s important to note that some UTIs might clear up on their own, and it is normal for healthy people (with no UTI symptoms) to have a small amount of bacteria in their urine at all times. But some UTIs will not just go away with time and patience, and you’ll need to take some course of drugs after consulting with a qualified medical professional.  

What Are the Consequences of UTI Drugs Not Working?

While it’s not entirely uncommon for bacteria to develop a resistance to specific drug treatments, it is concerning if there are no other drug options available or in development. And this is where the healthcare field is really failing women, and also putting women’s health in grave danger for the future.

Many drug companies have stopped investing funds and research in developing new antibiotic treatments because the drugs aren’t making money due to drug resistance and short-term treatment plans (compared to chronic illness drugs), among other issues. This includes antibiotic startups and pharmaceutical giants, who have abandoned the antibiotic drug sector in favor of more profitable products. Years of over-prescribing antibiotics have increased a bacterial resistance to these medications, and now that companies cannot make money selling the drugs they have invested millions to develop, they are jumping ship. Which means new drugs aren’t being developed and antibiotic drug research is being stifled; and as you can probably guess, the long-term consequences of that could be devastating, especially considering how common infections such as UTIs are, particularly among women. 

Drug-resistant infections now kill tens of thousands of people in the United States each year and sicken millions, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in November 2019. The report, entitled “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States (AR Threats Report),” indicates that antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi cause more than 2.8 million infections each year, and on average, someone in the United States gets an antibiotic-resistant infection every 11 seconds and every 15 minutes someone dies. Without new therapies, the United Nations says the global death toll could soar to 10 million by 2050.

It’s not a very promising financial outlook for antibiotic research companies, who are struggling to find investors and are therefore unable to work on developing new lifesaving drugs. “This is a crisis that should alarm everyone,” said Dr. Helen Boucher, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, in a New York  Times piece. This problem should not and cannot be ignored, especially by women who are at a higher risk of developing a UTI in the first place. 

Bottom Line: Ladies — Be Cautious and Take Care of Your Body

While it seems like the drug industry and big pharma companies are not looking out for women, or anyone at risk of developing a UTI in their lifetime, there are some things that you can do to prevent these infections and protect your health. 

First of all, drink plenty of fluids, and when we say fluids, we mean water (sorry, wine doesn’t count). Water helps to dilute your urine and makes you have to pee more often, which flushes bacteria out of your urinary tract. And while there is no scientific proof that cranberry juice can help prevent or treat UTIs, it doesn’t seem to hurt, so you can count that as some of your liquid intake. 

Again, when you wipe, pretty please do it from front to back so that you don’t risk any fecal bacteria entering your vagina or urethra. 

Teach your daughters and practice what you preach. If you are sexually active, pee right after sex to flush out your urinary tract and prevent bacteria from lingering in that region. And be wary of your birth control method of choice; some methods can contribute to or encourage bacterial growth, so speak to your doctor or switch up your birth control from time to time. 

Again, none of these practices can guarantee that you won’t get a UTI, and the unfortunate truth is that UTIs are extremely common and often recurring for women. But taking smart steps to keep your body safe and clean can only help ward off bacterial infections. And knowing what we now know about how UTI bacteria is becoming resistant to antibiotic drugs, we could all benefit from a little extra care to avoid UTIs whenever possible.