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“A urinary tract infection, or UTI, is an infection in any part of your urinary system, which includes the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra,” explains Dr. Shepherd.
“They are generally bacterial infections, most commonly caused by Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus saprophyticus traveling into the urinary system from outside of the body, causing infection and inflammation.” And while you may have heard that UTIs only affect women, it’s not actually true. “Women more frequently experience UTIs,” says Dr. Shepherd, but “men can get urinary tract infections as well.”
What are the symptoms of a UTI?
For many people, one UTI is all it takes to make you instantly recognize if it ever happens again. The symptoms of a UTI can include:
- A burning sensation when you pee
- A frequent or intense urge to pee, but peeing only small quantities each time
- Cloudy, dark, bloody, or strange-smelling pee
- Feeling tired or shaky
- Fever or chills (a sign that the infection may have reached your kidneys)
- Pain, pressure, or discomfort in your back and/or lower abdomen
Dr. Shepherd says that it’s important to first make sure it’s a UTI you’re dealing with: “Although the urgency to pee is a hallmark of UTIs that’s hard to mistake for other conditions, some symptoms may lead people to believe they have another issue altogether,” she says.
In women, lower abdominal pain can be confused with menstrual cramps, or even endometriosis, a condition characterized by abnormal menstrual bleeding. The back pain characteristic of upper urinary tract infections that have reached the kidneys may be confused with a pulled muscle or kidney stones (Gupta, 2012).
How are UTIs treated, and do they ever go away on their own?
“Very mild UTIs can sometimes go away on their own,” says Shepherd. “But UTI treatment generally requires a course of antibiotics that can be as short as three days or as long as 14 days depending on the severity of the infection and any other factors that may complicate it.”
If you are diagnosed with a UTI and your healthcare provider prescribes antibiotics, it’s important that you take them as directed. While your symptoms may resolve before you finish the full course of treatment, it doesn’t mean that the infection is cleared.
If you stop taking your antibiotics early, it can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon where the bacteria causing your infection will no longer respond to certain treatments. That means you should take the pills as prescribed, never save antibiotics after you’re done with your treatment course and never take pills that were prescribed to someone else (FDA, n.d.).
What options are there for relieving UTI symptoms ASAP?
When most people ask about instant relief, they’re usually looking for relief from the pain and urgent need to pee. The frequent urination can keep you up all night and feel unbearable if you’re unable to seek medical attention right away. Even worse, it can make you wonder how you’re going to make it to an appointment with a healthcare provider if you haven’t mapped out all the possible pit stops for pee breaks along the way.
Your healthcare provider may offer you a medication called phenazopyridine (sold under the brand names Pyridium or Azo Urinary Pain Relief). In addition to helping with that urgent need to pee, these medications can also help with any pain or burning while urinating that you’re experiencing. While phenazopyridine is great at relieving symptoms, it does nothing to treat the underlying condition. For that, you’ll need to take antibiotics.
Know the difference between upper and lower urinary tract infections
While a lower urinary tract infection (affecting the bladder and the urethra, which is the tube that carries urine from the bladder out of the body) is typically managed easily with antibiotics, if the infection has spread up the urinary tract to the ureters (the tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder) or to the kidneys themselves, the condition can very dangerous.
Symptoms of upper urinary tract infections can include back pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting as well as blood in the urine, and they require treatment with antibiotics to prevent possibly irreversible damage to the kidneys.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, seek medical attention. In addition to antibiotics, your healthcare provider may also suggest that you take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as acetaminophen to alleviate pain and fever.
What are recurrent UTIs?
About one in every four women who get one UTI will experience another one within six months (Foxman, 1990). While there are certain factors that predispose a person to recurrent UTIs (like incontinence, variations in anatomy and the presence of underlying medical conditions), there are some steps you can take to avoid getting another UTI in the future.
The most important thing may be to make sure to take antibiotics prescribed to you as directed by a healthcare professional. Other measures include proper hygiene (wipe front-to-back, ladies), drinking plenty of water, and peeing when you need to. Other commonly recommended tricks include peeing after sex, and modification of contraceptive choices (spermicide and diaphragms have been shown to play a role in the development of UTIs in women).
In some instances, your healthcare provider may recommend the regular use of antibiotics to prevent UTIs, not just to treat them when they appear (Rudenko, 2005).
What about drinking cranberry juice?
“Cranberry juice is not a treatment for urinary tract infections,” says Dr. Shepherd. While it’s unlikely to be harmful, a meta-analysis of studies that looked at the use of cranberry juice in more than 2,000 people showed that it didn’t reduce the chance of getting a urinary tract infection in comparison with water, placebo or nothing at all (Jepson, 2012).
And what about probiotics? Tried and tested but, unfortunately, probiotics haven’t been proven effective in reducing the frequency of recurrent UTIs or treating existing UTIs either (Schwenger, 2015).
So when it comes to getting quick relief, your best bet is to see a healthcare provider and get a prescription for antibiotics and Azo for pain relief. And in the long term? Make sure to take steps to avoid getting UTIs in the future.
- FDA: Office of the Commissioner. (2019, October 29). Combating Antibiotic Resistance. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/combating-antibiotic-resistance
- Foxman, B. (1990). Recurring urinary tract infection: Incidence and risk factors. American Journal of Public Health, 80(3), 331-333. doi:10.2105/ajph.80.3.331 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1404686/
- Gupta, K. (2012). Urinary Tract Infection. Annals of Internal Medicine, 156(5), ITC3. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-156-5-201203060-01003 Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1756287219832172
- Jepson, R. G., Williams, G., & Craig, J. C. (2012). Cranberries for preventing urinary tract infections. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd001321.pub5 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23076891/
- Rudenko, N., & Dorofeyev, A. (2005). Prevention of recurrent lower urinary tract infections by long-term administration of fosfomycin trometamol. Double blind, randomized, parallel group, placebo controlled study. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16080282/
- Schwenger, E. M., Tejani, A. M., & Loewen, P. S. (2015). Probiotics for preventing urinary tract infections in adults and children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd008772.pub2 Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26695595/
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.