"Untreatable" UTIs a frightening reality as antibiotic resistance grows

One of the most common infections of all -- especially among women -- is becoming difficult, and in some cases impossible, to treat.

Every year, nearly 10 million American women visit a doctor because of a urinary tract infection -- and most of them leave the clinic with a prescription for an antibiotic.

Now, many of them are learning the hard way that the drugs can make the condition worse instead of better.

Many UTIs are caused by the E. coli bacteria, and frightening new research shows how rapidly this common germ is becoming resistant to antibiotics. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of samples resistant to the drug Cipro increased by nearly 600 percent.

Today, almost a fifth of all E. coli samples in UTI patients are resistant to the drug -- and a quarter of all samples are resistant to the drug Bactrim, up by a third in that same decade.

As a result, docs sometimes have to try two, three or even four drugs -- including powerful broad-spectrum antibiotics -- to battle these infections.

But that approach can backfire, too. Antibiotics wipe out good bacteria in your body, including the ones that can help keep E. coli and other disease-causing germs in check.

And that, in turn, can cause you to get sicker and in some cases battle new and even worse infections.

One reason these bacteria are becoming so resistant so rapidly is that many women don't just battle a UTI once or even twice. They battle them often -- sometimes six or seven times a year.

Some doctors give these women a permanent supply of antibiotics, hoping to prevent the infections, but all that approach does is give the bacteria a chance to learn to resist the drugs.

One study in 2012 found that preventive antibiotics cut the number of UTIs in half over the course of a year, but also led to the growth of drug-resistant E. coli in the body.

The same study finds a much easier way to deal with those recurring infections: the probiotics Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 cut the average number of annual infections by almost as much as the drugs without increasing the presence of superbug germs.

Even if your infections aren't recurring, you don't need to turn to drugs. Taking 500 mg per day of cranberry extract has proven to be as effective as the antibiotic trimethoprim… or at least just as effective as trimethoprim used to be.

Just be sure to use real cranberry extract and not a sugar-loaded cranberry "juice drink."