Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the reason for almost 10 million doctor’s visits each year. But that’s no surprise for most women since at least one in five women will get a UTI during her lifetime.
Typically, if you suspect you have a urinary tract infection, you’ll head to your general practitioner or local urgent care for a diagnosis, where you’ll probably be prescribed a short dose of antibiotics and be sent home.
But, if you’re pregnant and don’t want to take antibiotics, or you have an antibiotic-resistant UTI, you might be interested in natural remedies to cure your urinary tract infection.
We spoke to expert OB-GYNs to find out exactly how to determine if you have a UTI, which natural remedies actually work, and which one to skip.
Can I self-diagnose a UTI?
According to a 2015 study by British researchers, there’s no reason women can’t learn to identify the symptoms of a urinary tract infection and self-treat with over-the-counter medication or proven natural remedies.
But is it really safe to self-diagnose a UTI?
Not according to Tami Prince, MD, a practicing OB-GYN in Georgia.
“A woman should visit an OB-GYN when she suspects a possible UTI because symptoms of a UTI may mimic other infections such as STDs,” Prince explains. “A woman should never self-diagnose.”
That’s because UTI symptoms can often be similar to other, more sinister (but rare) illnesses, like bladder cancer. Even if you’re almost positive you have a UTI, you should still visit your doctor.
“Self-diagnosis delays proper treatment and can lead to worsening symptoms such as pyelonephritis, which is a serious kidney infection,” Prince continues. “This more serious infection may lead to hospitalization. Over-the-counter treatment also interferes with urine testing and thus can lead to incorrect diagnosis.”
It’s especially important to schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN if you notice that you’re getting recurring UTIs (defined as more than three UTIs in a 12-month period), or your UTI has turned into a persistent, chronic urinary tract infection so that lasting damage, like internal scarring, doesn’t occur.
What are the symptoms of a urinary tract infection?
When I was pregnant the first time, I went to urgent care at least three times because I was experiencing classic UTI symptoms; I had to pee frequently (even more than usual when you’re pregnant), I felt a burning sensation when I went to the bathroom, I had a lot of pelvic pain, and my urine was kind of smelly.
But, each time, the doctor declared I did not have a urinary tract infection. This time around, I ignored those pesky symptoms because I thought I was in the clear, just like my first pregnancy. After a routine OB visit, though, I got a call from the nurse letting me know that I did, in fact, have a UTI.
UTI symptoms can often be similar to other, more sinister illnesses, like bladder cancer.
“Most common symptoms are burning with urination, increased urination, blood in the urine, strong urine odor, lower abdominal or pelvic pain, and change in urine color,” Prince tells HealthyWay.
In my case, the UTI symptoms I experienced without actually having a UTI were caused by mild dehydration. If you’ve experienced similar symptoms in the past without having a UTI, visit your doctor anyway to rule out any other causes. Most of these symptoms, especially blood in the urine and pelvic pain, aren’t normal.
Women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections than men—here’s why.
You can thank biology.
According to Prince, “Bacteria entering the urinary tract system upsets the normal protective bacteria that already resides [there]. Once this happens, the bad bacteria multiplies and overruns the good bacteria, leading to infection. Women are more susceptible than men due to the [female] urethra being shorter than the male urethra. This shorter urethra allows for bacteria to travel faster to the bladder.”
Also, menopausal women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections because of the sharp drop in estrogen levels during menopause. Estrogen helps to maintain balance in the urinary tract system, so when it gets out of balance, bacteria can thrive and cause a UTI.
Is it possible to prevent a UTI?
The best way to avoid the symptoms associated with a UTI? Prevent it from happening in the first place by practicing good hygiene.
Always make sure you wipe front to back (and not the other way around) after using the restroom. This prevents infection-causing bacteria from fecal matter from making its way up to the perivaginal area and into your internal anatomy where it could cause a UTI.
Menopausal women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections because of the sharp drop in estrogen levels during menopause.
Additionally, note that sexually active women are more likely to get UTIs. There’s no need to stop getting frisky though. One of the easiest ways to prevent a UTI is to use the restroom immediately after sex, then go back to your post-coital cuddle-fest.
Another way to prevent UTIs is to make sure you drink extra water and use the restroom at least every four hours. If you’re one of those people who gets so busy they realize they haven’t stopped for food or bathroom breaks all day, set an alarm on your phone to remind you it’s time to go. Also, skip the scented sprays, lotions, and creams that might make their way downstairs. I used to always spritz my perfume down there (I know, I’m nuts), but it turns out that scents can irritate sensitive genital skin, leaving it susceptible to bacterial growth.
Natural Remedies For UTIs
Prince says that studies focused on the treatment of UTIs with natural remedies are mostly inconclusive as to their efficacy because more research still needs to be done. However, a 2014 case study showed significant improvement in UTI symptoms when patients were treated with a combination of natural remedies including garlic, cranberry, and probiotics.
Choosing a natural remedy for a urinary tract infection should be a decision that you make with your physician. If your doctor gives you the all-clear, these natural remedies may help alleviate symptoms and clear up your urinary tract infection without antibiotics.
Pregnant? This is good news for you, too. According to the American Pregnancy Association, though little research has been done on probiotics taken in pregnancy, they are generally assumed to be safe. However, some natural supplements like garlic, cranberry, and vitamin C may not be safe for pregnant or nursing moms if taken in high doses, so always check with your doctor before taking any home remedy for a UTI.
Up to 80 percent of UTIs are actually caused by the same E. coli bacteria that commonly lives in your gut. Just how does this bacteria end up so far south? Well, it turns out that some strains of E. coli can not only travel outside the gut, but can also cause infections like a UTI. When E. coli is the culprit responsible for your urinary tract infection, Lactobacillus probiotics may help restore a healthy balance of vaginal bacteria and get rid of your urinary tract infection.
Probiotics are live organisms that help the gut maintain a healthy balance of good and bad gut bacteria. You can pick up Lactobacillus probiotics in almost any drugstore; while that’s great for gut health, these probiotic supplements, which are typically meant to be administered orally, won’t do much to cure your UTI. That’s because the E. coli bacteria that’s causing your UTI has traveled outside the gut into your vagina. In clinical trials, a Lactobacillus probiotic suppository—inserted vaginally—showed the most success in curing a urinary tract infection. Before using any vaginal suppository, speak to your doctor to make sure you choose the right type.
If you have the occasional UTI, cranberry may not help get rid of your symptoms, but research suggests that cranberry can alleviate the symptoms of women who suffer from persistent or recurring urinary tract infections.
Similar to probiotics, Prince explains that cranberries can also inhibit the adhesion of E. coli so that UTIs are less likely to occur. That’s partly because of the tart berry’s genetic makeup. Cranberries are 88 percent water, perfect for that needed hydration boost when you have a UTI. Plus, cranberries contain anthocyanins, which are plant pigments that are a natural defense against bad microbes found in the gut.
Note that sexually active women are more likely to get UTIs. There’s no need to stop getting frisky though. One of the easiest ways to prevent a UTI is to use the restroom immediately after sex.
To treat recurring UTIs with cranberry, follow the advice highlighted in a 2016 study conducted at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine: Skip sugary cranberry juice cocktails and opt for cranberry capsules instead. Why? The study found that patients who were given two pure cranberry juice capsules per day were 50 percent less likely to get a UTI. It’s not that cranberry juice doesn’t work against UTIs; rather, most cranberry juice found on store shelves isn’t 100 percent pure cranberry juice, meaning it won’t be as effective. And pure cranberry juice doesn’t taste great, so chugging 16 or more ounces of it a day could be challenging, which is why the study recommends capsules as an effective natural remedy for UTIs.
The downside to cranberry capsules is that you won’t get any of those ultra-hydrating benefits that whole cranberries provide because they’ve been dehydrated, powdered, ground, and encapsulated. So, if you choose to go the capsule route, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, too.
Garlic can add more than a big flavor boost to your home cooking. It turns out that garlic may actually help alleviate the symptoms of a urinary tract infection as well. Garlic is an allium, a plant species that also includes onions, leeks, and chives. Garlic has been used for centuries for its natural antibacterial properties in everything from salves to teas.
In particular, researchers at the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences in India found 82 percent of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in the urine of patients with UTIs responded positively to treatment with garlic extract.
Don’t go biting into a clove of fresh garlic just yet, though. Patients in the study were given an aqueous garlic extract, meaning that the garlic had been distilled into a water solution first. If you don’t have a full lab at home to make an aqueous extract, don’t worry. While the research regarding garlic as a treatment for UTIs is scant, one 2009 study found that mice who were treated with oral garlic supplements had significant reduction of UTIs caused by non-E. coli bacteria.
While you should always consult your doctor before beginning any homeopathic remedy, there’s little harm in consuming garlic in moderation. Instead of adding more garlic to your pasta dishes, try brewing some garlic tea instead. You can easily make it at home with a few supplies. If you don’t like the taste of straight garlic, try adding some ginger and honey for flavor.
Vitamin C may not do much for the common cold, but it could help you ward off that pesky UTI. Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, can help the body fight off a urinary tract infection by boosting the immune system and making urine more acidic so bacteria can’t thrive.
Medical professionals are divided on whether or not vitamin C really works to cure UTIs. A 2016 overview of non-antibiotic treatments of UTIs reported no difference in patients experiencing UTI symptoms after treatment with vitamin C; however, this study was extremely small, with only 13 participants completing the study.
Another study of over 100 pregnant women indicated that those treated with vitamin C showed an almost 17 percent reduction in the incidence of UTIs. That said, because it is unclear whether urine cultures were collected when participants were experiencing UTI symptoms, and because extremely low doses of vitamin C were administered, it’s hard to know whether or not vitamin C is actually an effective treatment against UTIs.
So should you treat your UTI with vitamin C? Small increases in vitamin C pose little risk to your health, so it is probably okay to have a second glass of orange juice if you’re trying to get rid of a UTI. Still, always consult your doctor before taking a supplement—even vitamin C!—or trying to treat a UTI on your own.
Skip the apple cider vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar has been touted as a natural remedy for everything from weight loss to teeth whitening. But does it really work to alleviate the symptoms of a urinary tract infection?
A recent study suggests that apple cider vinegar does have antimicrobial properties that can significantly impair key enzymes that cause E. coli bacteria to grow and multiply. The study didn’t test apple cider vinegar’s efficacy rate in treating UTIs, but since the majority of urinary tract infections are caused by E. coli, the study suggests that apple cider vinegar may help treat UTI symptoms. Still, apple cider vinegar is an unproven treatment for UTIs, so always consult your doctor before sipping this bitter beverage.
If you need to get rid of a UTI fast, it’s best to schedule an appointment with your OB-GYN, primary care provider, or even an urgent care for diagnosis before self-treating without antibiotics. Once your doctor gives you the go-ahead, though, try one of these natural remedies for relief, because nobody has time for a UTI.