Here's the lazy woman's truth about urinary tract infections: They're annoying enough to make peeing a nightmare, but not annoying enough to justify scheduling a doctor's appointment just to treat it. There are so many theories about how cranberry juice can relieve the pain, or how cranberry pills are an OTC way to get rid of one — but there's no proof that those supposed UTI treatments actually work.
So, do you have to go to the doctor when you get one? The short answer is yes — since the alternative is pretty bleak.
"If a UTI goes untreated, the infection can spread from the urinary tract into your bloodstream, and you may have a systemic infection that could be life-threatening," says Vannita Simma-Chiang, MD, assistant professor of urology at Mount Sinai Health System. But how do you go from burning pee to a life-threatening illness? A urinary tract infection can travel up to your kidneys and cause a kidney infection, which makes your kidneys inflamed and not function properly, Dr. Simma-Chiang says. And that kidney infection could end up in your bloodstream. Of course, that's the worst-case scenario and it's relatively rare, but Dr. Simma-Chiang says it's very difficult to treat even the smallest UTI at home.
When you get a UTI, your body's immune system is trying to fight off microorganisms that have made their way into your in your urinary tract, and it usually can't do it alone, she says. According to Dr. Simma-Chiang, if you have a healthy immune system, your body responds to this invasion of organisms with a fever, pain, and going to the bathroom frequently (to pee them out), and peeing is possibly accompanied by a burning sensation. "Once you start having symptoms of a UTI, your body is signaling to you — with symptoms of pain, discomfort, and fever — that it needs more than just rest and fluids," she says.
As soon as you get thee to a doctor, they'll prescribe an oral antibiotic that is usually enough to treat the infection, Dr. Simma-Chiang says. Some people who have an anatomic abnormality that affects their urinary tract or other medical problems (such as diabetes or cancer) may need to be treated with antibiotics given intravenously in the hospital, she says. Also, people who get kidney stones or have issues with constipation are more susceptible to UTIs. "In some patients, UTIs can also be a result of stones in the urinary system," she adds. And some people are just genetically predisposed to get them more often.
So, the next time you are blessed with the fun cocktail of symptoms that come with a UTI, don't try to ride it out. You can be smart about preventing future UTIs by drinking plenty of water, wiping from front to back, peeing after sex, and avoiding irritating feminine products (like wipes). Antibiotics will help the pain subside once they kick in, and your doctor might also recommend an OTC urinary analgesic medication, which will numb your urinary tract so you can comfortably pee (these also turn your pee bring red or orange, which is totally normal). But seeing a doctor and getting the right meds is the only way to truly get back to your usual self.