WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

When to See a Doctor for a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

April 7, 2022 - Katie McCallum

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is one of those health issues that's almost impossible to ignore.

Fortunately, though, it's also one that's fairly easily managed — if you know the signs to be on the lookout for and what to do when you think you have one.

"UTIs are a very common type of infection that can occur in both women and men," says Dr. Chris Kannady, a urologist at Houston Methodist. "And knowing when to see a doctor is important since, left untreated, a UTI can spread beyond the lower urinary tract and into the kidneys, which is a more serious infection that can be harder to treat."

What causes a UTI?

A UTI occurs when bacteria infect the urinary tract, causing irritation and inflammation. Most UTIs are caused by E. coli, a bacterium that normally resides in the gut but can get displaced from the rectum to the urethra after a bowel movement.

And after an infection takes hold in the urinary tract, it can then progress to the bladder and even the kidneys.

UTIs are more common in women than in men because a woman's urethra is much shorter — making it easier for bacteria to not only become relocated there but to move through and into the bladder as well.

To help prevent a UTI, always be sure to wipe from front to back — never the other way around — while using the restroom.

What does a UTI feel like?

If you have a UTI, you almost always feel it.

The most common UTI symptoms include:

  • Frequent and strong urge to urinate
  • Burning sensation, or even pain, while urinating
  • Feeling as if you are unable to empty completely while urinating
  • Urine leakage
  • Having urine that is strong-smelled, cloudy or discolored (red, pink or brown tint)
  • Pelvic pain, in some cases

"Some of these symptoms, such as a burning sensation during urination, can overlap with the symptoms of other vaginal infections, such as yeast infections — which are treated very differently from UTIs," says Dr. Kannady.

This is one reason why it's so important to consult your doctor about UTI symptoms. He or she can determine if your symptoms are truly indicative of a UTI and run the tests needed to appropriately diagnose and treat your infection.

Will a UTI go away on its own?

"A very mild UTI might resolve on its own in a few days, but more often than not a short course of antibiotics is needed to treat a UTI," says Dr. Kannady. "After initiation of antibiotics, UTI symptoms usually begin to resolve as early as the next day."

In the meantime, drinking plenty of fluids may help flush out the infection-causing bacteria and over-the-counter medications can help ease discomfort and pain.

But don't put too much stock in common UTI home remedies. For instance, drinking cranberry juice hasn't been shown to help relieve a UTI (although it's not likely to cause harm, either).

When to see a doctor about a UTI

As mentioned, antibiotics are typically needed to treat a UTI, so it's important to seek prompt care if you notice the signs of one.

Especially if:

  • Your symptoms are severe or getting worse
  • Your symptoms don't improve after a few days
  • You're getting recurrent UTIs

"Early and effective UTI treatment helps ensure that the infection is dealt with while it's easiest to treat and before it progresses to the kidneys," says Dr. Kannady. "Even a mild kidney infection can come with fairly debilitating symptoms, including fever, vomiting and intense pain. These infections also require a longer course of antibiotics."

And the more serious the kidney infection, the greater the risk of complications. They can range from hospitalization to even permanent kidney damage or a life-threatening bloodstream infection in some cases.

In men, UTIs also can spread to the prostate and cause prostatitis — which also often requires a longer course of antibiotics to treat.

"By initiating antibiotics as soon as a UTI is identified, we can greatly reduce the risk of these more complex and serious outcomes," says Dr. Kannady.

Lastly, if your UTI symptoms don't improve after taking antibiotics for a few days, be sure to follow up with your doctor.

"This could be a sign that the bacteria causing your infection are resistant to the antibiotic prescribed," Dr. Kannady says. "In these cases, a urine culture is needed to determine which antibiotic the bacteria are most sensitive to so the infection can be effectively treated."

What to do if you keep getting UTIs

"It's also important to consult your doctor if you're getting UTIs frequently — which is about three or more times per year," Dr. Kannady recommends.

Recurrent UTIs are fairly common, and they're also often effectively controlled via lifestyle changes. In some cases, though, your doctor may recommend that you see a urologist for further evaluation.

"Frequent UTIs are sometimes the result of an underlying health issue, such as kidney stones or abnormalities in your kidneys, bladder, or urethra," Dr. Kannady adds. "A urologist can rule out or diagnose and treat issues such as these, as well as provide further guidance on how to prevent UTI reoccurrence."

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