Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, are one of the most common conditions providers see. If you’re wondering, “Can UTIs go away on their own?” or, “Do I need to get treated?” Mark Newton, MD, UnityPoint Health, has the answers, along with identifying how long a UTI lasts and how to recognize symptoms.
What’s the Difference: Bladder Infection vs. UTI
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection in the urinary system, which includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder and prostate (in men). The most frequent type of UTI is an infection in the bladder (cystitis).
“There are bacteria associated with several parts of the body, including the skin, vagina and colon,” Dr. Newton says. “However, there shouldn’t be any bacteria in the bladder. So, when bacteria get in, it can cause inflammation in the lining of the bladder, leading to the symptoms of an infection.”
Dr. Newton says, in most cases, the bacteria that causes a UTI is E. coli from the intestinal tract. The infections are generally more common in women than men, because the anus (opening to the digestive tract) is closer to the urethra (opening to the urinary tract). They’re also more common in people with diabetes or prostate problems.
What are UTI Symptoms?
UTI symptoms typically include:
- Lower abdominal discomfort
- Burning during urination (dysuria)
- Needing to use the restroom more often (urinary frequency)
- Feeling like you can’t hold it (sense of urgency)
- Blood in the urine
- Cloudy, smelly urine
“During a UTI, some people will report a darker color urine that might seem brown, orange or red (due to blood), while others just describe it as being cloudier in appearance. If you notice green urine, that’s uncommon for a UTI, and it’s best to talk with your doctor as soon as possible,” Dr. Newton says.
Can UTIs Go Away on Their Own?
“A bladder infection can get better on its own, but most of the time it doesn’t. If your symptoms are minor, it’s reasonable to try extra fluids and cranberry products to see if it resolves over the course of a day. If it doesn’t, work with your doctor to get a urine test or visit urgent care. However, if you have severe symptoms that are very bothersome, consider taking action quicker. UTIs are generally treated with antibiotics,” Dr. Newton says.
If you don’t feel better after you’re done taking antibiotics, talk with your doctor.
“There is a chance your bacteria built up a resistance to the antibiotic, and you’ll need more tests to determine a more specific medication to treat your infection,” Dr. Newton says.
What Happens to an Untreated UTI?
If your UTI goes untreated, it may progress into a more serious infection.
“An untreated bladder infection can become a kidney or prostate infection. These infections are more serious, because they can travel through the blood stream causing sepsis. Sepsis makes people very ill and can even be critical,” Dr. Newton says.
Symptoms of a more serious infection include:
- Side (flank) or kidney discomfort
If you develop symptoms of a more serious infection, go to the emergency room right away for evaluation.
Does a UTI Mean a Trip to the Doctor?
No, not necessarily.
“If you think you might have a UTI, call your doctor. You might be able to skip the visit to the clinic and head straight to the lab for a urine test. It’s always a good idea to get a urine culture prior to starting antibiotics due to increasing antibiotic resistance in our community,” Dr. Newton says.
However, if you have frequent or reoccurring UTIs, it’s best to meet with your doctor to establish an action plan.
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How Long Does a UTI Last?
Once you’ve received the diagnosis, you’ll most likely need antibiotics, which should start clearing up your UTI in just a few days.
Besides taking your antibiotics, Dr. Newton says there are several other strategies to help treat or prevent a UTI, including:
- Cranberry Products. Studies haven’t defined which cranberry product creates the most benefit, however they’re thought to prevent bacteria from sticking to the lining of the bladder. Many patients find the over-the-counter cranberry pills easier to take than multiple glasses of cranberry juice per day.
- Fluids. Drinking 2-3 liters (70-100 oz) of fluid per day helps flush bacteria out of the bladder.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C prevents bacteria from growing by making urine more acidic. Adding a supplement of about 500 to 1,000 milligrams should be plenty, but it’s always a good idea to ask your doctor what’s best for you.
- Probiotics. Studies suggest probiotics, especially lactobacilli, can help with the prevention of UTIs. Talk to your doctor before adding this probiotic to your diet.
What Causes a UTI?
You’re more likely to get a UTI if you’ve had one before. Your genetic background also plays a role. Dr. Newton identifies several UTI risk factors:
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- Female anatomy. Since women have shorter urethras, UTIs are much more common for them. Men can still get bladder infections, but it’s rarer.
- Intercourse. Sexual intercourse causes bacteria to get closer to the urethra and causes an increased risk of infection. That’s why the recommendation is to urinate after intercourse to help prevent the transmission of fecal bacteria to the bladder.
- Menopause. Due to the lack of estrogen, the vaginal tissue loses elasticity, which tends to allow more bacteria into the vagina, igniting infection. Postmenopausal women also tend to be candidates for recurrent UTIs, or UTIs that occur more frequently. One treatment for postmenopausal UTIs is vaginal estrogen.
- Obesity. If you compare 10 women who have a body mass index (BMI) over 30 to 10 women with a BMI under 30, those who are obese have a higher risk of UTI. The theory is that due to increases in the folds of the labia, more bacteria tend to be harbored there, and it can creep up and cause a bladder infection.
- Uncontrolled diabetes. People with uncontrolled diabetes have less immunity and sugar in their urine, increasing risk of infection.
Urinary Tract Infection Misconceptions
Dr. Newton identifies common questions and misconceptions surrounding UTIs.
- What about using feminine products? With proper use and good hygiene, there’s no increased risk of a UTI from using pads or tampons.
- Are UTIs contagious? They’re not contagious, so you can’t pass a UTI to your partner.
- Does painful urination always mean a UTI? There are multiple other potential causes of painful urination, including kidney stones, bladder tumors and dietary reactions, which can cause similar symptoms. If an antibiotic doesn’t resolve your symptoms, seek additional medical evaluation.
- How long do antibiotics last? For most cases, three to five days should be enough to treat a UTI. When prescribed antibiotics, it’s best to take as instructed to finish the full dose, even if you feel better before you’ve completed the medication.
- If there’s bacteria in my urine without other symptoms, do I need to be treated? This is a complicated question, and you should talk with your doctor about it. Some people become “colonized,” which means just like patients have bacteria on their skin, some will have bacteria in their bladder. That isn’t technically considered a UTI. With the increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, it’s best to only treat a UTI if symptoms are present. If you don’t have symptoms, it’s usually OK not to treat unless there was a specific reason to do so, such as an upcoming surgery or pregnancy.
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