Last updated March 23, 2018.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are extremely common — they account for 2-3 million emergency department visits in the U.S. per year and another 10.5 million doctor’s office visits. In general, they’re just unpleasant. They may cause pain or a burning sensation during urination, pain in the lower abdomen or pelvis, and frequent urination. They’re also relatively mild if treated promptly with antibiotics, although they can become more serious if left untreated.
In other words, while they do require treatment, most UTIs are no big deal. However, that’s not necessarily the case if you’re pregnant.
Urine Infection During Pregnancy: Is it Harmful for Baby?
A UTI is an infection that affects part of your urinary tract, most commonly in the bladder or urethra. They’re most often caused by sexual activity, as bacteria get into the urethra during sex. Pregnancy may increase your risk for having a UTI, though the rates are somewhat similar in non-pregnant woman — up to 15% of women will have a UTI in their lifetimes while 10% of pregnant women will have them during pregnancy. The hormonal changes caused by pregnancy create an ideal environment for UTIs to flourish, the muscles around your bladder and urethra relax (allowing bacteria in more easily), and the increasing size of your uterus can make it harder to empty your bladder completely (allowing bacteria to hang around and multiply).
In most cases, a UTI during pregnancy is no big deal. You’ll notice symptoms, get treatment, and go on your way. The symptoms of UTIs include:
- pain in your pelvis or lower abdomen
- painful or burning urination
- increased frequency of urination
- cloudy or pink (bloody) urine
- strong-smelling urine
Many women don’t get UTI symptoms (during pregnancy or in general), but your healthcare provider will test for it and treat you if necessary.
UTIs are typically treated with antibiotics. While the list of medications you can take is significantly shortened by pregnancy, most antibiotics are fine. Make sure your doctor knows you’re pregnant before making a decision about which antibiotics to use. In addition to the antibiotics, you should drink plenty of water to help your body flush out the infection. While you’re waiting for the medication to kick in, you can alleviate discomfort by:
- sitting on a heating pad (just keep the heat turned low and don’t use it for more than 15 minutes at a time)
- avoid spicy food and alcohol
- wear loose cotton underwear and clothing
For years, cranberry juice has been recommended as a way to speed up the UTI healing process. However, recent studies suggest that it may not have real benefits after all. If you do drink cranberry juice, as with any juice, make sure it’s pasteurized!
Risks of a UTI During Pregnancy
So UTIs are very common during pregnancy and typically don’t cause any trouble if you treat them promptly. The troubles come in if a UTI is left untreated. If you don’t stop it with antibiotics, a UTI can travel to your kidneys. From there, it can cause a number of complications for your pregnancy.
First, a kidney infection can turn into sepsis. Sepsis is your body’s response to a serious infection; it’s often called “blood poisoning.” It causes a high fever and pain and can kick in extremely quickly. The inflammation may be severe enough to cut off blood flow to your organs or to the baby, which can be fatal for both of you. Sepsis can only be treated with strong antibiotics. If you’re pregnant and develop a fever or severe pain, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Untreated urinary tract infections increase your risk for going into labor and delivering your baby early. Preterm labor can cause serious health problems as your baby won’t be fully developed and may not be able to breathe without assistance. UTIs are also associated with a low birth weight.
All women should be screened for UTI during pregnancy. Per one study:
“Untreated UTI will lead to pre-term premature rupture of membrane, maternal chorioamnionitis, intrauterine growth retardation and low birth weight baby. Early treatment with antibiotics has significantly reduced the above complications.”
Risks of a UTI During Delivery and Labor
Like other bacterial infections, a UTI can be spread to your child during delivery as the baby pushes through the birth canal. Most UTIs are caused by E. coli bacteria, which can cause serious infections if they get into your baby’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Babies’ immune systems aren’t as developed as ours, so a relatively harmless infection like a UTI can be life-threatening in an infant.
If you believe you have a UTI when you go into labor, you should talk to your doctor about the risks and the alternatives to avoid exposing your little one to a dangerous infection. You know your body, so make sure your doctor doesn’t dismiss it as a normal symptom of pregnancy.
Will a UTI affect my pregnancy?
The best way to avoid the risks of a UTI during pregnancy is to avoid getting a UTI in the first place. There are several steps you can take to decrease your risk. To avoid UTIs, you should:
- wear cotton underwear and change them at least daily
- always wipe from front to back
- urinate before and after intercourse
- drink plenty of water
- urinate regularly and do your best to empty your bladder completely every time
If you’re already prone to UTIs, talk to your health care provider about other steps you can take to protect yourself and your little one and about regular screening to catch any asymptomatic infections.
If you do develop any symptoms of a UTI or other infection, you should seek medical attention immediately. A UTI is typically not dangerous to you or the baby unless it’s left untreated for too long.