Q:  How do you get a urinary tract infection?

A:  The infection is most often caused by bacteria from the digestive tract being spread to the urethra and then traveling up the urinary tract to the bladder, and sometimes the kidneys. It can also be caused by bacteria and microorganisms transmitted during sexual intercourse.

Q:  Isn't it true that once you have a urinary tract infection, you'll never have another one?

A:  No. In fact, once you have a urinary tract infection, the more likely it is you'll have another. Nearly 20 percent of women who have a urinary tract infection will have another, and 30 percent of those who have had two will have a third. About 80 percent of those who have had three will have a fourth. Four out of five such women get another infection within 18 months of the last one.

Q:  How can I tell if I have a urinary tract infection?

A:  Symptoms of urinary tract infections may include frequent, urgent needs to urinate, but not making it to the toilet in time; a painful, burning sensation when urination occurs; cloudy or reddish-colored urine; urine that smells foul or strong, and soreness in the back, side or lower abdomen. If fever, chills, nausea, vomiting and back pain accompany the symptoms, you may have a kidney infection. See your health care professional promptly if you have any signs of a urinary tract infection.

Q:  My urinary tract infection seems to be gone. Do I still need to take the rest of my antibiotic medication?

A:  Yes, absolutely. Although your symptoms may disappear in one or two days after taking antibiotic medication, all the medication must be taken to destroy the germs causing the infection. If you don't, your symptoms may return, or you may have another urinary tract infection in a short time.

Q:  Will a urinary tract infection harm my baby or me when I'm pregnant?

A:  If the infection is caught and treated early, generally not. However, pregnant women are more likely to have a urinary tract infection spread to their kidneys, which can cause kidney damage, high blood pressure and increased risk of premature delivery. If you're pregnant and suspect you have a urinary tract infection, see your health care professional right away.

Q:  Isn't drinking cranberry juice to prevent urinary tract infection an old wives' tale?

A:  Not necessarily. Cranberry juice and vitamin C make the urine more acidic, which makes it more difficult for bacteria that can cause urinary tract infections to grow. Cranberry juice also has another unique factor that helps prevent bacteria from adhering to the bladder surface.

Q:  Why do I keep getting urinary tract infections?

A:  Some women are more prone to urinary tract infections than others because the cells in their vaginal areas and in their urethras are more easily invaded by bacteria. Your risk of urinary tract infection also is greater if you're past menopause because thinning of tissue covering the urethra after menopause may make the area less resistant to bacteria.

Irritation or injury to the vagina or urethra caused by sexual intercourse, douching, tampons or feminine deodorants can give bacteria a chance to invade. Using a diaphragm can cause irritation, and can interfere with the bladder's ability to empty, giving bacteria a place to grow. Constipation can lead to high levels of the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria in the rectum, increasing the risk that they could spread to the urinary tract.

Any abnormality of the urinary tract that blocks the flow of urine, such as a kidney stone, also can lead to an infection. Illnesses that affect the immune system also increase the risk of urinary tract infections.

Practicing good personal hygiene habits, including washing the areas around the bowel, vagina and urethra daily and wiping from front to back, can help avoid spreading bacteria to the urinary tract. Drinking plenty of water daily, urinating when you feel the need, rather than waiting, and urinating after sexual intercourse can help flush the system of bacteria.

Q:  Are there any medications that can prevent my recurring infections?

A:  If you have urinary tract infections three times a year or more, ask your health care professional about preventive antibiotic therapy. Taking a low dosage of antibiotics over a period of time, such as six months or longer, or a single dose after sexual intercourse sometimes is prescribed to head off infections. Or, you may take antibiotics for one or two days when you first notice signs of a urinary tract infection. Talk with your health care professional about which treatment may be best for you.

Copyright 2003

National Women's Health Resource Center Inc. (NWHRC).