The first thing that comes to your mind when you hear about “urinary tract infection” or UTI (its acronym), is bladder infection and its associated symptoms – such as a frequent urge to urinate and a burning sensation when you do. But it is definitely not the whole story.
UTI can start in any part of the urinary tract. It can start at the kidneys, where urine is made; then continue through tubes called ureters down to the bladder, where urine accumulates until you urinate and ends with the urethra (a short tube that carries the urine outside your body).
UTIs are generally triggered by bacteria from your skin, vagina, or rectum that enter your urethra and travel upstream. There are several common types of UTIs:
Bacteria may also travel from the bladder up through the ureters to infect one or both kidneys. A kidney infection also called pyelonephritis is the very common but serious medical complication of pregnancy. The infection can spread to the bloodstream and become life-threatening for the mother and baby. It increases the risk of preterm labour and having a low-birth-weight baby, and it may also result in increased risk of foetal or newborn mortality.
Cystitis, or bladder infection
Often, bacteria stops in the bladder and multiplies there, causing inflammation and causing those familiar symptoms of a bladder infection. Cystitis is found common among sexually active women between the ages of 20 and 50.
It is possible to have bacteria in the urinary tract and have no symptoms. This is known as asymptomatic bacteriuria. This is does not cause a problem during pregnancy and often clears on its own.
However, asymptomatic bacteriuria if left untreated during pregnancy, significantly increases the risk of getting a kidney infection and is related to preterm labour and low birth weight. This is one reason that you should get a urine test routinely done during pregnancy.
Does pregnancy make it more likely to get a urinary tract infection?
It is not clear whether pregnancy increases the risk of cystitis, and some research suggest that pregnancy does not make you vulnerable asymptomatic bacteriuria. However, pregnancy significantly increases the risk of getting a kidney infection.
Reason being, higher levels of the hormone progesterone decrease the muscle tone of the ureters (the tubes between the kidneys and the bladder), resulting in the dilation of the ureters, further slowing the flow of urine. Also, as the uterus enlarges it may press against the ureters, making it that much more difficult for urine to flow through them as quickly and as freely as usual.
Your bladder also loses tone during pregnancy. It becomes difficult to totally empty the bladder, and the bladder becomes vulnerable to reflux (a condition where some urine flows back up the ureters toward the kidneys).
The longer it takes for the urine to pass through your urinary tract, the more time it will give bacteria to multiply. Also, the urine becomes less acidic during pregnancy and is more likely to contain glucose, both of which enhance the possibility for bacterial growth.
What happens if a pregnant woman has urinary tract infection but does not have symptoms?
Asymptomatic bacteriuria is associated with preterm birth and low birth weight. And if it is not treated, the chances of developing a kidney infection may be as high as 40 percent. However, with suitable treatment the risk can be brought down dramatically, to between 1 and 4 percent.
To check whether there is bacteria in your urinary tract, your doctor will collect a sample of your urine at the first prenatal visit and will then send the sample to a lab for testing, whether you have symptoms or not. If your initial urine culture is negative, then your chances of developing a UTI later in pregnancy are less.
If the culture is positive, you will be treated with oral antibiotics that are safe to take during pregnancy. A course of antibiotics for a week, usually cures the infection.
After treatment, you will be tested again to make sure the infection is gone. You should get your urine cultures tested at regular intervals throughout your pregnancy to make sure you do not have another infection.
What to do to avoid getting a urinary tract infection?
Follow these steps to reduce your chances of getting a urinary tract infection:
- Drink plenty of water. Try to have 10, 8-ounce cups of water every day. You can also sip fluids throughout the day to keep your urine clear or pale yellow in colour which is a sign of proper hydration.
- After a bowel movement, wipe yourself from front to back to avoid bacteria in the stool from getting near the urethra.
- Don’t ignore the urge to pee. Try to empty your bladder completely when you urinate.
- Keep your genital area clean with water.
- Clean your genital area and urinate before and after sexual intercourse.
- Drink cranberry juice. Studies have shown that cranberry juice – and its relative, lingonberry juice – can reduce bacteria levels and depress the new bacteria from taking hold in the urinary tract. Having cranberry juice will not be able clear any existing infection. It is advised that you should consult your doctor and get a prescription for antibiotics right away.
- Avoid using powders or sprays for maintaining the hygiene of your genital area. Also do not use strong soaps that can irritate your urethra and genitals, making them a better breeding ground for bacteria.