Maybe you’ve heard other people’s UTI nightmares: the friend who gets one almost every time she has sex; the 70-something aunt who struggles with recurring infections now that she’s older. Or maybe you’re dealing with symptoms seemingly out of the blue or after a weekend of hot tubbing.
When symptoms surface, the cause doesn’t exactly matter; all you want to know is how to get rid of your UTI.
Antibiotics are the main treatment, especially if you have a raging infection. But when symptoms are mild or vague, it may be worth giving natural remedies for a UTI a try before popping a prescription pill or while you’re waiting for your meds to kick in.
So what exactly is a UTI? A urinary tract infection, or UTI, is a general term for any infection along the urinary tract. Infections usually start in the lower urinary tract, where the urethra (the tube that allows urine to pass out of the body) and bladder (where urine is stored) are located.
Sometimes UTIs travel to the ureters (the tubes that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder) and kidneys (where urine is produced).
Anyone can get a UTI and at any age, including babies, toddlers, and men—but these infections are much more common in women. Doctors say it’s an anatomy thing: Women’s urethras are shorter than men’s and closer to the anus, so it’s easier for bacteria to enter the body and ascend the urinary tract.
Most UTIs are bladder infections (also called cystitis). Common symptoms include burning; lower abdominal pain; and a frequent or urgent need to urinate, even if you barely have a trickle of pee to pass.
If the infection travels from the bladder to one or both kidneys, more worrisome symptoms can develop. Kidney infections (also called pyelonephritis) are a type of UTI that can spike a fever and cause back pain; nausea; vomiting; and bloody, cloudy, or foul-smelling urine.
Thomas Hooton, MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine, tells patients with recurrent infections who have mild symptoms to “try to treat it naturally with increased fluid and some pain relief.” If UTI symptoms improve in a day or two, “well, then, you’ve saved yourself an antibiotic,” he says.
That’s important, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because overuse of antibiotics can render these drugs ineffective against future bacterial infections, including recurrent UTIs.
If symptoms are bad or don’t improve, “by all means,” Dr. Hooton says, “call the doctor and get an antibiotic.”
Older, post-menopausal women experiencing repeated UTIs should speak with a doctor about a prescription for vaginal estrogen, adds Nazema Siddiqui, MD, assistant professor of urogynecology and reconstructive pelvic surgery at Duke University Medical Center. Research shows it can help by building the body’s defense against bad bugs.
If your child has urinary symptoms (which can differ from your own), consult your pediatrician and seek immediate care if fever and other signs of illness last more than 24 hours. Young children are at greater risk of kidney damage from UTIs than older kids and adults, says the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
That said, there are times when it makes sense for UTI sufferers to go the home-remedy route because some things may actually help. Here’s how to treat a UTI at home.
If you’re a UTI sufferer, doctors have long recommended boosting your daily water intake to prevent infections.
Dr. Hooton and colleagues put that simple idea to the test by following women with recurrent UTIs and low daily fluid intake. Those asked to increase their water consumption reduced their antibiotic use by nearly half and had more time between infections than a control group of women who stuck to their regular water intake. Preliminary study findings were presented at a 2017 infectious disease meeting.
Does water ease existing UTI symptoms? There’s never been a randomized trial, Dr. Hooton says, but the theory’s the same: “You’re trying to use the body’s natural defense mechanisms to wash out bacteria.”
No one knows exactly how much additional fluid you should consume each day to prevent or treat a UTI. In Dr. Hooton’s study, the women aimed for an additional 1.5 liters (about 6 cups) a day.
If you’ve got to go, go! Peeing may help flush out bacteria that cause UTIs, doctors say.
Studies involving female Taiwanese factory workers with a high rate of UTIs suggest an association between delayed bladder voiding and the infections. After an educational campaign on the importance of fluids and urination, workers’ water intake and bathroom breaks increased and UTI prevalence decreased.
Dr. Hooton says the findings make intuitive sense. The longer you hold it in, the more time you give bacteria “to stick to the bladder wall and cause infection.”
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Dose up on D-mannose
D-mannose is a simple sugar with a potential UTI prevention superpower: It sticks to E. coli bacteria.
A small, randomized trial found women taking 2 grams of D-mannose powder in almost a cup of water daily for 6 months had significantly fewer recurrent UTIs than women taking an antibiotic for UTI prevention and women who didn't take anything. Scientists think it may prevent bacteria from clinging to the bladder and causing infection.
More research is needed to show how much to take or whether it’s well absorbed from the GI tract into the bladder, Dr. Hooton explains, but he suggests trying it because it shouldn’t hurt and could be helpful.
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Give cranberry a whirl
Some women swear by cranberry to stave off UTIs. But study results are decidedly mixed, and many involve older adults in long-term care.
“In younger, healthier women, there may be a role for it,” Dr. Siddiqui observes.
Cranberries contain proanthocyanidins, chemicals that prevent bacteria from sticking to cells lining the urinary tract, according to a 2009 report in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
If you’re going to try cranberry, pills may be more palatable than downing tart, 100% cranberry juice, Dr. Siddiqui says. If it works for you, stick with it–but if not, don’t waste your money. And of course, she adds, if your symptoms are really bad, “we do generally recommend treating with antibiotics.”
A few words of caution: If you’re on a blood thinner, talk to your doctor first because taking cranberry may increase your risk of bleeding, Dr. Siddiqui notes. Also, people with interstitial cystitis, a painful bladder condition, may want to avoid cranberry, she says, because its acidity may cause further irritation.
However, if you are already taking D-mannose and cranberry and you’re otherwise healthy, adding C to your regimen likely won’t hurt. “Many bladder health supplements combine all three of these agents,” Dr. Siddiqui notes.
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Scientists are studying ways to prevent UTIs by repopulating the vagina with healthy bacteria. But it’s not clear whether taking an oral probiotic supplement will get the job done.
Probiotics containing lactobacillus, a strain of bacteria found in the vagina and bladder, are thought to be helpful. Trouble is, there are lots of different species of lactobacilli, and researchers don’t yet know which ones may be most effective, Dr. Siddiqui explains.
Her advice: Read labels. Look for a probiotic with three, four, or five different lactobacilli strains, such as L. acidophilus, L. gasseri, L. crispatus, and L. rhamnosus.
If you’re still getting UTIs, tight skinny jeans may not be your thing.
“We don’t really think that clothing causes infections or makes infections persist,” but it might “worsen irritation,” Dr. Siddiqui explains.
Wearing underwear with a cotton crotch and quickly changing out of damp workout clothes and wet bathing suits may also help, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health.