A urinary tract infection (UTI) can knock you off your feet.
Affecting one or more areas within the urinary tract, including the urethra, bladder, ureters, and kidneys, UTIs occur when bacteria enter the urinary tract and multiply. They can cause painful and frequent urination, lower abdominal pain, and bloody urine. These infections are responsible for roughly 8 million doctor visits each year.
UTIs are the second most common type of infection to occur in the human body. They occur more often in women, but can affect men too. Women have a shorter urethra, so it’s easier for bacteria to enter their bladder. It’s estimated that 40 to 60 percent of women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime. Urinary tract infections in men are often related to an enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hypertrophy) blocking the flow of urine, which allows bacteria to have an easier time occupying the urinary tract.
In almost 90 percent of cases, UTIs are caused by E. coli (Escherichia coli), a bacterium that’s normally found inside the intestines. When confined to the intestines, it’s harmless. But sometimes this bacterium gets into the urinary tract and causes an infection.
Sex may trigger a UTI in women because intercourse can move bacteria from the anal area to near the opening of the urethra. Women can lower their risk of infection by cleaning the genital area before any sexual activity, and by urinating afterward. Using spermicides, diaphragms, and condoms also raises the risk of a UTI. The risk is higher in people with a weakened immune system as well.
Why antibiotics sometimes don’t work
Most UTIs aren’t serious. But if left untreated, the infection can spread up to the kidneys and bloodstream and become life-threatening. Kidney infections can lead to kidney damage and kidney scarring.
Symptoms of a UTI usually improve within two to three days after starting antibiotic therapy, although many doctors prescribe an antibiotic for at least seven days. While this type of medication is the standard treatment, researchers are noticing that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are reducing how effective some antibiotics are in treating UTIs. Some UTIs don’t clear up after antibiotic therapy. When an antibiotic medication doesn't stop the bacteria causing an infection, the bacteria continue to multiply.
Antibiotic resistance is often caused by the overuse or misuse of antibiotics. This can happen when the same antibiotic is prescribed over and over again for recurrent UTIs. Because of this risk, experts have been looking for ways to treat UTIs without antibiotics.
Are antibiotics going out of style?
So far, preliminary studies have been promising. Some research has shown that UTIs can be treated without traditional antibiotics by targeting E. coli’s surface component for adhesion, FimH.
Typically, the urinary tract flushes away bacteria when you urinate. But according to researchers, FimH can cause E. coli to firmly attach to the cells in the urinary tract. And because of this tight grip, it’s hard for the body to naturally flush the bacteria from the urinary tract. If researchers can uncover a way to target this protein with other types of therapies, treating UTIs with antibiotics might become a thing of the past.
D-mannose is a sugar that sticks to E. coli. Recently, researchers have studied the possibility of using D-mannose and other mannose-containing substances to block the binding of FimH to the uroepithelial lining. So far, they’ve had positive results as shown in this small, limited study from 2012. More research is needed, but potentially, a medication that utilizes a mannose-containing substance that opposes FimH from attaching to the lining of the urinary tract in one way or another could show promise for the treatment of UTIs caused by E. coli.
Researchers are also currently testing immune-boosting drugs, which could help urinary tract cells become more resistant to infections.
Home remedies for UTIs
While treating UTIs without antibiotics is certainly a future possibility, for now, they remain the most effective standard treatment. However, a prescription medication doesn’t have to be the only line of defense. Along with standard therapy, you can incorporate home remedies to feel better sooner and reduce the likelihood of recurrent infections.
1. Try cranberries
Cranberries may contain an ingredient that stops bacteria from attaching to the walls of the urinary tract. You might be able to reduce your risk with unsweetened cranberry juice, cranberry supplements, or by snacking on dried cranberries. However, don’t drink cranberry juice if you’re taking the blood-thinning medication warfarin or NSAIDs like aspirin.
2. Drink plenty of water
Although urinating can be painful when you have a UTI, it’s important to drink as many fluids as possible, particularly water. The more you drink, the more you’ll urinate. Urinating helps flush harmful bacteria from the urinary tract.
3. Pee when you need to
Holding your urine or ignoring the urge to urinate can allow bacteria to multiply in your urinary tract. As a rule of thumb, always use the bathroom when you feel the urge.
4. Take probiotics
Probiotics promote healthy digestion and immunity, and may be effective in treating and preventing UTIs. With a UTI, bad bacteria replace good bacteria called vaginal lactobacilli. Probiotics can restore good bacteria and reduce symptoms of a UTI.
5. Eat garlic
While there isn’t a lot of research on how garlic can help with UTIs, one study found that garlic can function as a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune system booster, which could help you fight off a UTI.
6. Try apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar makes the urine acidic and inhibits the growth of bacteria, making it easier to flush bacteria from the urinary tract. But vinegar is highly acidic and can damage tooth enamel, so don’t use it as a long-term therapy. Talk to your doctor before using apple cider vinegar if you take medications for diabetes mellitus or heart disease.
7. Get more vitamin C
Increasing your intake of vitamin C may help treat a urinary tract infection. Vitamin C strengthens the immune system so that your body can fight the infection.
UTIs are painful, but with treatment, you can overcome an infection and prevent recurrent infections. Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of a UTI. With proper treatment, you should begin to feel better in a few days. Take your antibiotics as instructed — even after your symptoms improve — to prevent complications or a secondary infection.
If the UTI doesn’t resolve after antibiotic treatment, or you end up with multiple episodes of a UTI, your physician will likely do further testing. This could be in the form of a repeat urine culture, urinary tract ultrasound, plain film X-ray, CT scan, cystoscopy, or urodynamic testing. You may be referred to a urologist, depending on how chronic or the severity of your UTI.
Certain strains of bacteria can cause UTIs that can range from mild to severe, and the degree of severity depends on multiple factors, including:
- one’s immune system status
- the bacterium causing the UTI
- where in your urinary tract the UTI is happening
It’s also possible to have bacterial colonization in the urinary tract that’s not causing you to have a UTI. Regarding a possible UTI, your physician will be able to provide you with an evaluation, tailored to your needs, in order to make the right diagnosis and determine the proper therapy.