They’re a special sort of torture—half physical, half mental, wholly awful. Yet for so long, we've been happy to just throw antibiotics at women who suffer from recurring UTIs and send them on their way.
UTIs are as frustrating as they are debilitating. They put you at odds with your body. They couldn’t care less about your schedule or proximity to the bathroom. They’re unrelenting and evil and widely misunderstood. Essentially, they’re the infectious form of my teenage self.
In a culture that has yet to celebrate or even accept women’s sexuality, UTIs carry that extra connotation—that So you slept with someone and now you’re here connotation that makes women want to embargo their vaginas.
It’s unfair, but it’s our reality (for now). The scarcity of preventative options for UTIs suggests a lack of research, a lack of interest, or both, with the health industry deeming them an uncomfortable but manageable health problem. But for the roughly 1 in 5 young women who face chronic UTIs, “manageable” hardly describes it.
I got my first one sophomore year of college. It made its raucous entrance halfway through a 2-hour lecture on Joyce’s Ulysses and I thought the pain was a psychosomatic reaction to the novel. I missed the entire second half of class because the nearest bathroom was a 10-minute walk and I was too afraid I’d pee my pants in class if I went back.
Three years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with abdominal pain so bad I couldn’t move. It was a Saturday, so urgent care was the only option. I waited until I thought I might pass out to go because I was a post-grad with a double-digit checking account and three jobs. They told me it was a kidney infection and gave me antibiotics for the UTI and for the yeast infection that the first round of antibiotics would surely cause.
As bad as I thought I had it in those moments, my experiences were truly mild compared to those of many women. I never dealt with chronic infections. I had health insurance. I could afford to see a doctor and to skip a shift at work if it got bad enough. Many women can’t say the same.
A friend of mine was sent home from the doctor with a jumbo jar of antibiotics and advised to take them daily, or at least every time she had sex. This is all too common. Women are told that a consistent, low dose of antibiotics is the only option if they want relief… which, of course, they do.
But this approach just introduces a slew of other issues. When you’re on a constant regimen of antibiotics, you can expect a life full of yeast infections and mild sunburns at best. At worst, you might develop an antibiotic resistance. If the bacteria in your body become resistant to antibiotics, a simple infection could suddenly become life-threatening.
So, again, why are we still having this conversation? The medical community’s general attitude toward UTIs is a troubling side effect of a much larger issue. Women’s issues are still just that: women’s issues. Our tampons are taxed, but Rogaine isn’t. We’re told, in so many words and so many laws, that our health is a commodity. We’re asked to go about our lives with capital p Prevention in the back of our minds at all times.
It would be easier to excuse if we weren’t living in a time of tremendous discovery and innovation. But the fact is, women’s health advocates spend so much time fighting battles against our own government, they have little time to devote to the health issues that piqued their rage in the first place.
Of course, there are many women’s health warriors who do what they can to support research and offer solutions where medicine doesn’t. Progressive women’s brands are picking up the slack too.
LOLA donates tampons and pads to low-income women, who often can’t afford feminine care products among other essentials. After 50 years, the breast pump finally got a redesign thanks to Naya, a company that gained notoriety for their cringingly poignant video, If Men Breastfed. And Uqora gives women who suffer from UTIs a healthy alternative to antibiotics with a simple, preventative drink mix.
Though progress is being made by many, we won’t get far without having the hard conversations. Not every woman faces chronic UTIs, but most women have been let down by the healthcare industry in some way. They’ve seen overworked doctors who are too busy for empathy. They’ve paid outrageous sums for prescriptions and birth control while stomaching the laundry list of side effects.
While it’s tempting to back away from these conversations, I’d encourage you to engage, even if the issues don’t impact you directly. Women’s health is getting politicized and polluted more than ever. That means we need strong, empathetic voices in our corner and the will to ask for something more.— Guest post contributed by Jana Barrett