Nothing disrupts your plans quite like a urinary tract infection. Suddenly you’re searching for the bathroom everywhere you go. And that long road trip with friends you had planned, that concert you were looking forward to or that relaxing beach day you desperately need seem impossibly out of reach.
If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI), you likely never want to experience another one. So how do you prevent UTIs? People have been told for years that drinking cranberry juice can prevent and cure UTIs. But is it really true, or just an old myth? We’re here to clear that up and offer other at-home treatments to relieve discomfort from UTI symptoms.
First, let’s talk about how UTIs happen
You may be wondering how you ended up with a UTI in the first place. A UTI is an infection caused by bacteria that can occur anywhere in the urinary tract, which includes your kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra.
When the infection is in the bladder or urethra, it’s called a lower UTI. An infection in the ureters or kidneys is an upper UTI, which is a more serious condition.
UTIs are more common among women because women’s urethras are shorter and closer to the vagina and anus. This anatomy makes it easier for bacteria to enter the urinary tract.
Symptoms of a UTI can include pelvic pain near your groin, lower back pain, urgent and frequent urination, a burning sensation when you pee, and bloody or cloudy pee.
What are the most effective treatments for UTIs?
The most effective treatment for a UTI is a course of prescription oral antibiotics. Even though some UTIs won’t require antibiotic treatment, it’s always best to check with a doctor and discuss your specific symptoms.
Cranberry juice, extracts and supplements have been recommended in the past to prevent or cure UTIs. That’s because there are special compounds in cranberries called A-type proanthocyanidins (PACs) that can prevent bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall.
In theory, this could prevent UTIs from happening or help you recover from one faster. But studies have shown the actual benefits are mixed. One 2021 study found that people with the highest risk of UTIs (pregnant women, children and the elderly) experienced fewer of them when they drank cranberry juice or took cranberry supplements. But another study from 2012 found that cranberry in any form made no difference in UTI incidences for the population overall. Some experts believe there may not be enough of the A-type proanthocyanidins in cranberry juice for it to be an effective treatment.
Even though there’s no consensus on whether cranberry juice works on UTIs, most experts say drinking it certainly can’t hurt. Just make sure to drink it in moderation and choose 100% cranberry juice.
If you dislike the tart taste of pure cranberry juice, you can ask your doctor about taking cranberry supplements. There are a variety of products on the market, so check that the brand you choose contains at least 36 mg of PACs (the beneficial ingredient).
More at-home remedies for UTIs
While home remedies for urinary tract infections shouldn’t replace treatment by a doctor, here are some things you can do to help ease the discomfort of your UTI symptoms:
- Stay hydrated: Drinking lots of fluids, especially water, will flush out the urinary tract system without irritating it.
- Avoid bladder-irritating foods: Avoiding coffee, tea, alcohol, carbonated drinks, spicy foods, chocolate, artificial sweeteners and citrus can help reduce the frequency and urgency of your trips to the bathroom, as well as relieve some bladder pain while you recover from a UTI.
- Take over-the-counter pain medications: Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend you take over-the-counter pain relievers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) to help with any burning and discomfort while the antibiotics start to work.
- Use heat: Applying heat to your lower stomach or lower back can help relieve the pain associated with UTIs. You can use a heating pad, hot compress or hot water bottle.
How to prevent UTIs
Unfortunately, you can’t prevent every UTI – sometimes they’re unavoidable. However, you can take steps to preserve the health of your urinary tract, so if an infection does happen, you’re ready to fight it.
Practice good hygiene
One of the best ways to avoid UTIs is to maintain good hygiene, which prevents bacteria from entering the urinary tract. Wash the external genital and anal area regularly, wipe from front to back and change underwear daily.
Drink water and other fluids
Staying consistently hydrated is great for nearly every aspect of health, but especially the health of your urinary tract. Regular consumption of water helps you continue to produce urine, and regularly urinating flushes out any bacteria that have gotten into your urinary tract before they can cause an infection.
Peeing as soon as or shortly after you first feel the urge is one of the best things you can do for your bladder health. And every time you go, make sure to completely empty your bladder so bacteria can exit the urinary tract. Peeing before and especially right after sex is important as well, so you can flush out any freshly introduced bacteria.
Women who are healthy and not currently pregnant pee about 6-8 times over the course of 24 hours. Feel like you’re going too much? Check out our blog on frequent urination.
Change up your wardrobe
While it may seem outlandish, it’s true that the underwear you choose to wear can impact your health. Certain synthetic fabrics and styles can create an ideal environment for frequent UTIs. Thongs have earned a bad reputation in this area, and even though formal studies have never proven the link between thongs and UTIs, there may still be a risk.
The important thing to remember is to avoid wearing the same underwear two days in a row, and when in doubt, try some loose-fitting cotton underwear.
Know your birth control risks
Some types of birth control can increase your chances of a UTI. Vaginal diaphragms and spermicide-based methods (including spermicide-coated condoms) can disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina, for reasons that are still unknown to researchers. These bacteria can then make their way into the urinary tract. Condoms without spermicide are a great choice for both birth control and vaginal health.
Pay attention to your pH
A change in your vagina’s pH (acidity level) can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina. The bad bacteria can then migrate to your urethra, resulting in a UTI. Multiple factors can interfere with pH, including menopause, sex with a new partner, douching, sprays or deodorants in the genital area, menstruation and antibiotics.
As women age, the supply of estrogen that encourages healthy, “good” bacteria in the vagina declines. Hormone replacement therapy or probiotics can keep the beneficial vaginal bacteria thriving and keep the bad bacteria at bay.
When it’s not a UTI
Urinary tract infections share common symptoms with some other conditions, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and some pelvic floor disorders. If your UTI symptoms don’t improve after a few days of antibiotics or you start to develop new symptoms, talk to your doctor. It’s possible to have more than one type of infection at a time, and further testing can help determine the best course of treatment.
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of a UTI, but your urine culture keeps coming back negative and all the remedies we listed above aren’t helping, ask your doctor about what else may be causing your discomfort. They can discuss other possibilities and refer you to a specialist like a urogynecologist or urologist, if needed.
How to get UTI treatment
If your UTI symptoms do not improve, there are multiple options to receive treatment depending on the severity of your symptoms and appointment preferences.
Video or in-office visit with your primary care clinician
You can visit your primary care doctor or clinician through a video visit or in-person appointment. They can help you with a variety of pelvic health conditions, including UTIs. If symptoms aren’t improving, it’s best to see your doctor in-person to help diagnose what you’re experiencing and to get any lab testing that’s needed.
24/7 online care for UTI
A urine culture is not always necessary to treat common bladder infections, so it’s sometimes possible to get treatment online. You can receive same-day, 24/7 online care through Virtuwell. The process is simple. You’ll be asked a few questions about your health history and symptoms. Soon after, a board-certified nurse practitioner will review your information and follow up with a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Specialty care for recurrent UTIs
If you think you’re experiencing chronic or recurrent UTIs, it may be time to see a specialist. Chronic UTIs are defined as two or more infections within six months, or three or more infections within 12 months.
First, get treated by a primary care doctor or online clinic for your current UTI symptoms. Then make an appointment with a specialist.
Women’s health specialists include OB-GYNs and urogynecologists. Both have experience treating chronic UTIs. An OB-GYN is an expert in female reproductive health, and a urogynecologist specializes in urinary and pelvic health. A urologist – a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating urinary tract and reproductive system conditions for men, women and children – may also be able to help.
Urgent care for when your symptoms can’t wait
If you’re experiencing severe symptoms (such as the fever, chills, back pain or vomiting symptoms of a kidney infection), head to urgent care. These symptoms require immediate medical attention, including examination and testing to confirm your diagnosis.