More than half of all women will suffer from a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in their lifetime, and data shows that many will have recurrent infections. Typically, the best way to get rid of a UTI and put an end to the uncomfortable burning and urgency to pee is with an antibiotic that kills the particular strain of bacteria causing trouble. However, research has found that taking antibiotics for urinary tract infections is linked to an increased risk of antibiotic resistance. That means if you develop another bacterial infection later on somewhere else in your body, the antibiotics you took for your UTIs may not be effective. If you want to avoid antibiotics from the get-go, try the doctor-approved home remedies for urinary tract infections below.
Editor's note: Things like fever, nausea, back pain and an altered mental status are all red flags for a kidney infection, which requires immediate treatment. If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible.
What is a urinary tract infection?
“Technically your urinary tract starts in your kidneys and goes all the way to where urine comes out, which is the urethra,” says Karyn S. Eilber, M.D., a board-certified urologist with a subspecialty in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at Cedars Sinai. “In general, when people say UTI, they’re talking about a bladder infection and the symptoms are localized to what we call the lower urinary tract or the bladder and the urethra.”
What are the symptoms of a UTI?
When your bladder is inflamed, it can lead to these symptoms of the lower urinary tract:
- A strong urge to urinate frequently
- Stinging or burning during urination
- Cloudy or strong-smelling urine
- Brown or red-tinged urine (an indication of blood)
- Pain in the pelvic area
However, if the infection migrates up to the kidneys, it can cause more severe symptoms like these:
- Altered mental status
Home remedies for UTIs
Drink lots of water.
“The best data out there that I have seen is drinking lots and lots of water,” says Rachel Rubin, M.D., a board-certified urologist and sexual medicine specialist in private practice and an assistant clinical professor of urology at Georgetown University School of Medicine. In fact, in one study of premenopausal women who are prone to UTIs, those who started consuming an extra 1.5 liters of water daily had a lower number of UTIs over the next 12 months than women who didn’t increase their water intake. The thinking is that water dilutes urine and flushes the bad bacteria out of your system. Of course, the downside to this approach is that it’s going to make you urinate more often — and potentially suffer the pain that comes with that.
Treat the pain with OTC meds.
Just because you want to avoid antibiotics doesn’t mean you have to avoid all medications. First, there’s over-the-counter phenazopyridine (more commonly known by the brand name Azo), which Dr. Rubin says can help “numb the bladder a little bit so you don’t feel as much stinging or burning.” Or, you can try a pain reliever like ibuprofen.
Increase your vitamin C intake.
“Vitamin C may help because it makes the urine acidic,” explains Dr. Eilber. One study of pregnant women found that those who took 100 mg of vitamin C every day had fewer UTIs than those who didn’t. Dr. Eilber says there’s not a lot of research beyond that, but some patients claim it works and it likely won’t harm you so vitamin C supplementation could be worth a shot. Alternatively, you can try adding foods that are rich in vitamin C to your diet.
Take cranberry pills.
Cranberries are often touted as a natural antidote for urinary tract infections, but taking the pill form is a better bet than swigging juice. “You can drink tons of cranberry juice, but you don’t really know how much of the active ingredient you’re getting,” says Dr. Eilber. The key ingredient to look for in a cranberry supplement is proanthocyanidins (PAC), which studies suggest might prevent bacteria from getting comfy and forming biofilms in your bladder.
Consider taking D-mannose.
Most people have never heard of D-mannose, but it’s a chemical compound similar to glucose that research has shown may help treat or prevent UTIs. “It’s like a sugar so the bacteria attach to that instead of the walls of the urethra and vagina,” says Dr. Eilber. “A lot of people will take D-mannose and report to me that it can have really good preventive effects for them.”
Know when to see a doctor.
If any of your symptoms are getting worse, it’s important to seek medical care right away. “The key to infections is to prevent it from becoming a kidney infection, which can go into your bloodstream and lead to sepsis,” says Dr. Rubin. “That can be very dangerous, especially for people who are immunocompromised and older people.”
But it’s also smart to see your doctor if you frequently experience UTI symptoms. “Not everything that hurts is an infection and not everything that’s inflamed is an infection, but infection can cause similar symptoms,” explains Dr. Rubin. “It’s actually pretty helpful to get a urine culture because that will help guide treatment, whether we think it’s truly an infection or whether we think it’s inflammation or irritation.” If the culture shows that a particular bacterium is present in your urine, your doctor can prescribe the correct antibiotic to wipe it out and if the culture doesn’t show any bacteria, your doctor can explore other causes for your discomfort.
For instance, if you’ve been on birth control for a long time or if you’re entering or have been through menopause, you may be lacking hormones like estrogen in your vaginal area. “The vaginal tissue and bladder and urethra tissue is very hormonally sensitive and so without hormones, it becomes dry, irritated and tender, and it feels like a urinary tract infection,” adds Dr. Rubin. On top of that, the lack of acidity will make you more likely to get a urinary tract infection in the first place. “But vaginal estrogen and vaginal hormones actually do fix the problem,” says Dr. Rubin. They can relieve symptoms like pain or a burning sensation, reduce urinary frequency and urgency as well as keep tissue healthy to fight off and prevent infections.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you treat a UTI at home?
If the infection is mild, yes — you can address symptoms and take measures to help your body get rid of the invading bacteria. However, it’s important to pay attention to your symptoms and schedule a visit with a physician if they get worse or don’t go away on their own.
How long does it take for a UTI to go away?
“It depends on the severity of the infection,” says Dr. Eilber. “If it’s really mild, maybe a day or two. If your symptoms are lingering for three, four, or five days, they’re probably not going to go away on their own and it’s probably a good idea to see your doctor.”
How can you prevent UTIs?
“There are some women who never get them, which is amazing, so some people don’t even need prevention,” says Dr. Eilber. But if you’re not that lucky, these strategies might lower your risk of developing a urinary tract infection:
- Stay hydrated. Drinking water is great for many reasons, but it can also ensure that bacteria don’t hang out for too long in your bladder.
- Consider supplements. As mentioned above, vitamin C, proanthocyanidin or D-mannose could help prevent UTIs, but ask your doctor before taking any of them.
- Wipe from front to back. Otherwise, you run the risk of “getting contamination of bacteria that are okay in the bowel but can cause a bladder infection,” explains Dr. Eilber.
- Urinate after having sex. According to some research, sexual intercourse can cause bacteria to move up the urinary tract into the bladder. While Dr. Eilber says there isn’t a lot of hard evidence to show peeing after sex will help, it can’t hurt.
- If you’ve taken birth control for a long time or are peri- or post-menopausal, talk to your doctor about vaginal estrogen. Supplementing hormones locally can support a healthy bacterial composition in the vagina, which will keep tissue healthy and lower your risk for infections, says Dr. Rubin.
Will supplements cure a UTI?
The ones listed above might help with prevention, but unfortunately there’s no cure-all supplement that works for everyone. “People ask about different things like pumpkin seeds and celery root,” says Dr. Eilber. “I’d say there’s probably no data about those things, but if you tried it and you tell me that it’s helped and it’s not harmful, I’m totally fine with that.” Just make sure you ask your doctor before you start taking any supplement in case it can trigger new symptoms or interfere with meds you take.
Will probiotics prevent UTIs?
“There are studies that indicate that if you can make your gut flora more beneficial in certain ways, that may help prevent UTIs, but that’s not well established,” says Dr. Eilber, “and certainly, if it’s someone who has taken a lot of antibiotics, I think the probiotics are important just to maintain your gut health.”
Will specific foods help with UTIs?
Unfortunately, no. “Unless you’re staying chronically dehydrated where you’re not urinating that much so the bacteria are sitting in your bladder for long periods of time, there’s nothing really dietary that will help,” says Dr. Eilber.
Why do women get more UTIs than men?
Indeed, studies have shown what many of us assume: Women are significantly more likely to experience urinary tract infections than men. “We have a really bad setup down there,” says Dr. Eilber. “One of the reasons why it’s unusual for men to get infections is because they have such a long urethra so the bacteria have a long way to go to get to the bladder and prostate — unlike women where our urethra is so short those bacteria take a few steps and they’re already right there and ready to cause us problems.”
Kaitlyn Phoenix is a senior editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she reports, writes and edits research-backed health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman's Day. She has more than 10 years of experience talking to top medical professionals and poring over studies to figure out the science of how our bodies work. Beyond that, Kaitlyn turns what she learns into engaging and easy-to-read stories about medical conditions, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. She also holds a B.S. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.