Women With Recurrent UTIs Express Fear, Frustration

Pam Harrison

October 08, 2021

Fear of antibiotic overuse and frustration with physicians who prescribe them too freely are key sentiments expressed by women with recurrent urinary tract infections (rUTIs), according to findings from a study involving six focus groups.

Dr Victoria Scott

"Here in our female pelvic medicine reconstructive urology clinic at Cedars-Sinai and at UCLA, we see many women who are referred for evaluation of rUTIs who are very frustrated with their care," Victoria Scott, MD, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California, told Medscape Medical News.

"So with these focus groups, we saw an opportunity to explore why women are so frustrated and to try and improve the care delivered," she added.

Findings from the study were published online September 1 in The Journal of Urology.

"There is a need for physicians to modify management strategies...and to devote more research efforts to improving nonantibiotic options for the prevention and treatment of recurrent urinary tract infections, as well as management strategies that better empower patients," the authors write.

Six Focus Groups

Four or five participants were included in each of the six focus groups — a total of 29 women. All participants reported a history of symptomatic, culture-proven UTI episodes. They had experienced two or more infections in 6 months or three or more infections within 1 year. Women were predominantly White. Most were employed part- or full-time and held a college degree.

From a qualitative analysis of all focus group transcripts, two main themes emerged:

  • The negative impact of taking antibiotics for the prevention and treatment of rUTIs

  • Resentment of the medical profession for the way it managed rUTIs

The researchers found that participants had a good understanding of the deleterious effects from inappropriate antibiotic use, largely gleaned from media sources and the internet. "Numerous women stated that they had reached such a level of concern about antibiotics that they would resist taking them for prevention or treatment of infections," Scott and colleagues point out.

These concerns centered around the risk of developing resistance to antibiotics and the ill effects that antibiotics can have on the gastrointestinal and genitourinary microbiomes. Several women reported that they had developed Clostridium difficile infections after taking antibiotics; one of the patients required hospitalization for the infection.

Women also reported concerns that they had been given an antibiotic needlessly for symptoms that might have been caused by a genitourinary condition other than a UTI. They also reported feeling resentful toward practitioners, particularly if they felt the practitioner was overprescribing antibiotics. Some had resorted to consultations with alternative practitioners, such as herbalists. "A second concern discussed by participants was the feeling of being ignored by physicians," the authors observe.

In this regard, the women felt that their physicians underestimated the burden that rUTIs had on their lives and the detrimental effect that repeated infections had on their relationships, work, and overall quality of life. "These perceptions led to a prevalent mistrust of physicians," the investigators write. This prompted many women to insist that the medical community devote more effort to the development of nonantibiotic options for the prevention and treatment of UTIs.

Improved Management Strategies

Asked how physicians might improve their management of rUTIs, Scott shared a number of suggestions. Cardinal rule number one: have the patient undergo a urinalysis to make sure she does have a UTI. "There is a subset of patients among women with rUTIs who come in with a diagnosis of an rUTI but who really have not had documentation of more than one positive urine culture," Scott noted. Such a history suggests that they do not have an rUTI.

It's imperative that physicians rule out commonly misdiagnosed disorders, such as overactive bladder, as a cause of the patient's symptoms. Symptoms of overactive bladder and rUTIs often overlap. While waiting for results from the urinalysis to confirm or rule out a UTI, young and healthy women may be prescribed a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug (NSAID), such as naproxen, which can help ameliorate symptoms.

Because UTIs are frequently self-limiting, Scott and others have found that for young, otherwise healthy women, NSAIDs alone can often resolve symptoms of the UTI without use of an antibiotic. For relatively severe symptoms, a urinary analgesic, such as phenazopyridine (Pyridium), may soothe the lining of the urinary tract and relieve pain. Cystex is an over-the-counter urinary analgesic that women can procure themselves, Scott added.

If an antibiotic is indicated, those most commonly prescribed for a single episode of acute cystitis are nitrofurantoin and sulfamethoxazole plus trimethoprim (Bactrim). For recurrent UTIs, "patients are a bit more complicated," Scott admits. "I think the best practice is to look back at a woman's prior urine culture and select an antibiotic that showed good sensitivity in the last positive urine test," she said.

Prevention starts with behavioral strategies, such as voiding after sexual intercourse and wiping from front to back following urination to avoid introducing fecal bacteria into the urethra. Evidence suggests that premenopausal women who drink at least 1.5 L of water a day have significantly fewer UTI episodes, Scott noted. There is also "pretty good" evidence that cranberry supplements (not juice) can prevent rUTIs. Use of cranberry supplements is supported by the American Urological Association (conditional recommendation; evidence level of grade C).

For peri- and postmenopausal women, vaginal estrogen may be effective. It's use for UTI prevention is well supported by the literature. Although not as well supported by evidence, some women find that a supplement such as D-mannose may prevent or treat UTIs by causing bacteria to bind to it rather than to the bladder wall. Probiotics are another possibility, she noted. Empathy can't hurt, she added.

"A common theme among satisfied women was the sentiment that their physicians understood their problems and had a system in place to allow rapid diagnosis and treatment for UTI episodes," the authors emphasize.

"[Such attitudes] highlight the need to investigate each patient's experience and perceptions to allow for shared decision making regarding the management of rUTIs," they write.

Further Commentary

Asked to comment on the findings, editorialist Michelle Van Kuiken, MD, assistant professor of urology, University of California, San Francisco, acknowledged that unfortunately, there is not a lot of strong evidence to support many nonantibiotic therapies for the prevention of rUTI. "The AUA Guideline nicely outlines what evidence does exist and makes recommendations accordingly," she told Medscape Medical News in an email. At least one statement in the guidelines that is supported by evidence is in regard to the daily use of concentrated cranberry supplements, which Van Kuiken routinely recommends.

Van Kuiken also routinely recommends vaginal estrogen for all postmenopausal women who present with recurrent UTIs, inasmuch as this, too, is supported by the AUA for postmenopausal women on the basis of good evidence. There is some evidence to support D-mannose as well, although it's not that robust, she acknowledged.

On the other hand, she felt the evidence supporting the use of probiotics for rUTIs is very thin, and she does not routinely recommend them for this indication. "I think for a lot of women who have rUTIs, it can be pretty debilitating and upsetting for them — it can impact travel plans, work, and social events," Van Kuiken said.

"Until we develop better diagnostic and therapeutic strategies, validating women's experiences and concerns with rUTI while limiting unnecessary antibiotics remains our best option," she writes in her editorial.

Scott and Van Kuiken have disclosed no relevant financial relationships..

J Urol. Published online September 1, 2021. Full text, Editorial

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