About half of all women will feel the sting of a urinary tract infection (UTI) at least once in their lives. Men get them, too, but anatomical differences leave women much more prone to infection than men. As many as 40% of women who experience a UTI will have recurrent episodes, leaving her more vulnerable to serious complications that include infection of the kidneys or the bloodstream. A recent study suggests prevention of recurrent UTIs could soon be just a store shelf away.

Records at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate UTIs account for as many as 4 million doctor visits in the US every year. Most UTIs are caused by the E. coli bacterium, which lives (usually peacefully) in the bowel. Infection occurs when these bacteria escape the bowel and enter the urethra from the anus or vagina.

Researchers, led by Thomas Hannan of the Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, found fewer UTIs recurring when inexpensive non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) were administered. Ibuprofen, used in Hannan’s study, is a popular NSAID sold over the counter (OTC) in pharmacies, supermarkets, and even in convenience stores.

Hannan says the previous explanation for recurrent UTIs was that the immune system was too weak to fend off repeated infections. His study indicates a too-vigorous immune response can be just as problematic. Over-reaction by the immune system to the first infection leaves a patient more vulnerable to repeated infections.

Using mice for his study, Hannan discovered UTIs activate immune cells called neutrophils. During their fight against infection, neutrophils leave “footholds” on the inner lining that protects the bladder. Hannan believes these footholds could make it easy for bacteria to grab hold, settle in, and create infections that recur with increasing severity.

Mice suffering from repeated UTIs had an abundance of inflammatory molecules in the bladder, too. A protein called COX-2 produces the inflammation but COX-2 inhibitors, such as NSAIDS, regulate the inflammation-causing proteins so their beneficial activities continue while their negative effects are stopped. Mice prone to recurrent UTIs were less likely to experience additional episodes of infection after treatment with NSAIDs.

The results are “encouraging” but no studies have been done yet on humans. Hannan cautions “it’s important to remember that urinary tract infections are serious, and antibiotic treatment is often necessary. Patients should not treat these infections on their own without help from a medical provider.”

Symptoms of UTI
Some of the earliest symptoms of UTI may seem like symptoms of pregnancy:

  • Pain in the lower back or on the side below the rib cage
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Frequent or intense need to urinate
  • Painful burning sensation during urination
  • Urine that is dark, cloudy, or bloody
  • Foul-smelling urine

If you experience any of the following symptoms, please consult your physician immediately. Improperly treated UTIs can quickly become deadly.

Source: Purdy, Michael C. “Painkillers may decrease susceptibility to recurring urinary infections.” Washington University in St. Louis / Newsroom. Washington University in St. Louis. May 18, 2014. Web. Jun 4, 2014.