Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are caused by bacterial infection, so doctors usually treat them with antibiotics — but is it possible to treat a UTI without antibiotics?
UTIs are among the most common bacterial infections in the United States. They are especially prevalent in women, around 50 percent of whom will have one during their lifetime. UTIs also tend to reoccur.
Increasingly, people want to know whether non-antibiotic treatments can resolve UTIs. We explore this possibility here and provide seven evidence-based home remedies that can help to treat UTIs.
Can you treat a UTI without antibiotics?
Antibiotics are an effective treatment for UTIs. However, the body can often resolve minor, uncomplicated UTIs on its own without the help of antibiotics.
By some estimates, 25–42 percent of uncomplicated UTI infections clear on their own. In these cases, people can try a range of home remedies to speed up recovery.
Complicated UTIs will require medical treatment. These UTIs involve one or more of the following factors:
- changes in the urinary tract or organs, such as a swollen prostate or a reduced flow of urine
- species of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics
- conditions that affect the immune system, such as HIV, cardiac disease, or lupus
Benefits of antibiotics for UTIs
Antibiotics are the standard treatment for UTIs because they kill the bacteria that cause the infections. Most UTIs develop when bacteria enter the urinary tract from outside the body. The species of bacteria most likely to be responsible for UTIs include:
- Escherichia coli species, which cause up to 90 percent of all bladder infections
- Staphylococcus epidermidis and Staphylococcus aureus
- Klebsiella pneumoniae
Risks of antibiotics for UTIs
While antibiotics can usually treat UTIs quickly and effectively, people can be allergic to them, and their use can carry certain risks.
For instance, an estimated 22 percent of the women receiving treatment for uncomplicated UTIs develop a vaginal Candida infection, which is a type of fungal infection.
Other side effects of antibiotics as UTI treatments include:
- nausea and vomiting
- a rash
- a headache
- abnormal liver function tests
More severe risks of using antibiotics include:
Creating stronger strains of bacteria
Over time, some species of bacteria have become resistant to traditional antibiotics. There are several species of E. coli that are showing increasing drug resistance, and these are the primary cause of UTIs.
Every time people use an antibiotic, there is an increased risk of the bacteria developing resistance to it. This is even more likely when people do not follow the doctor’s instructions to complete the full prescribed course of treatment.
As a result, doctors are trying to reduce the use of antibiotics, especially when other treatments may be effective or when illnesses can resolve on their own.
It is essential to continue a course of antibiotics until the end date that the doctor provides. People should also never share antibiotics with others.
Damaging good bacteria
The body contains a community of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live harmoniously and help with bodily functions. Antibiotics may destroy some of these bacteria, which could increase the likelihood of other infections occurring.
Seven methods for treating UTIs without antibiotics
While scientific research supports some at-home or natural UTI remedies, others have been a part of traditional medicine systems for thousands of years.
To treat a UTI without antibiotics, people can try the following home remedies:
1. Stay hydrated
Drinking enough water is one of the easiest ways to help prevent and treat UTIs.
Water helps the urinary tract organs remove waste from the body efficiently while retaining vital nutrients and electrolytes.
Being hydrated also dilutes the urine and speeds its journey through the system, making it harder for bacteria to reach the cells that line urinary organs and to cause an infection.
There is no set recommendation for how much people should drink daily, as each person’s water needs are different. On average though, people should drink at least six to eight 8-ounce (oz) glasses of water each day.
2. Urinate when the need arises
Frequent urination puts pressure on bacteria in the urinary tract, which can help to clear them out.
It also reduces the amount of time that bacteria in the urine are exposed to cells in the urinary tract, reducing the risk of them attaching and forming an infection.
Always urinate as soon as possible when the urge strikes to help prevent and treat UTIs.
3. Drink cranberry juice
Cranberry juice is one of the most well-established natural treatments for UTIs. People have also traditionally used it to help clear general infections and speed up wound recovery time.
Studies on the effectiveness of cranberry juice for UTIs have had mixed results. According to one review, cranberry juice contains compounds that may prevent E. coli cells from attaching to cells in the urinary tract.
Cranberry juice also contains antioxidants, including polyphenols, which have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
There is no set guideline on how much cranberry juice to drink to treat a UTI, but a common recommendation is to drink around 400 milliliters (mL) of at least 25-percent cranberry juice every day to prevent or treat UTIs.
4. Use probiotics
Beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, can help keep the urinary tract healthy and free from harmful bacteria.
In particular, a group of probiotics called lactobacilli may help with treating and preventing UTIs. They may do this by:
- preventing harmful bacteria from attaching to urinary tract cells
- producing hydrogen peroxide in urine, which is a strong antibacterial
- lowering urine pH, making conditions less favorable for bacteria
People who take lactobacillus supplements while on antibiotics for UTIs may develop less antibiotic resistance than people not taking them.
Probiotics occur in a variety of fermented and dairy products, including:
- some types of cheese
People can also take probiotic supplements, which are usually in the form of a capsule or a powder that mixes into water or other beverages.
5. Get enough vitamin C
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to improve immune system function.
Vitamin C also reacts with nitrates in urine to form nitrogen oxides that can kill bacteria. It can lower the pH of urine, making it less likely that bacteria will survive.
As with cranberry juice, people have been using vitamin C in various forms to treat UTIs for thousands of years. But there is a lack of quality research to confirm whether or not increasing vitamin C intake can prevent or treat UTIs.
According to the limited research, taking other supplements alongside vitamin C may maximize its benefits.
In a 2016 study, 38 women with recurrent UTIs took vitamin C, probiotics, and cranberries three times daily for 20 days, then stopped for 10 days. They repeated this cycle for 3 months. The researchers concluded that this could be a safe and effective treatment approach for UTIs.
The National Institutes of Health recommend that for people aged 19 and over, women should get at least 75 mg of vitamin C per day, while men need around 90 mg per day. Adults who smoke should take an additional 35 mg of the vitamin each day.
6. Wipe from front to back
Many UTIs develop when bacteria from the rectum or feces gain access to the urethra, the small channel that allows urine to flow out of the body.
Once bacteria are in the urethra, they can travel up into other urinary tract organs where they can lead to infections.
After urinating, wipe in a way that prevents bacteria from coming into contact with the genitals. Use separate pieces of toilet paper to wipe the genitals and anus.
7. Practice good sexual hygiene
Sexual intercourse introduces bacteria and other microbes from outside the body to the urinary tract. Practicing good sexual hygiene can help to reduce the number of bacteria that people can transfer during intercourse and other sexual acts.
Examples of good sexual hygiene include:
- urinating before and immediately after sex
- using barrier contraception, such as a condom
- washing the genitals, especially the foreskin, before and after engaging in sexual acts or intercourse
- washing the genitals or changing condoms if switching from anal sex to vaginal sex
- ensuring that sexual partners are aware of any current or previous UTIs
Currently, researchers are trying to design vaccines that would prevent many types of bacteria from being able to attach to body cells properly.
They are also working on developing other UTI vaccines that prevent bacteria from being able to grow and cause infection. To date, only one type of UTI vaccine has reached preliminary human trials. Studies on the rest are still using animals and tissue samples.
When to see a doctor
If a person suspects that they might have a UTI, they should speak to their doctor for advice on the best way to treat the possible infection.
Antibiotics may not always be necessary to treat UTIs, but it is still important to seek medical attention for any infection or suspected infection. This will reduce the risk of a more severe infection developing that is harder to treat.
The signs and symptoms of UTIs include:
- increased frequency and urgency of urination
- pain or burning when urinating
- low-grade fevers (below 101°F)
- pressure or cramping in the area around the lower abdomen and groin
- change in the smell or color of urine
- cloudy, murky, or bloody urine