So you think you have an annoying bladder infection, and you don’t feel like going to the doctor.
Can you leave your UTI untreated?
If so, how long do UTIs last without treatment?
Let’s look at whether it’s a good idea to ignore the signs of a urinary tract infection, and simply hope it goes away on its own.
What Is A UTI?
UTI is shorthand for a urinary tract infection, which occurs in any part of the urinary system—the kidneys, ureters, bladder and urethra. Most infections involve the lower urinary tract, or the bladder and the urethra.1
A UTI develops when bacteria grows inside the urethra, the tube that carries urine from your bladder out of your body. Women are at greater risk of developing a UTI than are men.1
That’s mostly because in women, the urethra is short and close to the rectum. That makes it easier for bacteria to travel from the skin, vagina, or rectum to the bladder.2
While they don’t always cause symptoms, the common signs of a UTI are:1
- a strong urge to urinate that doesn’t go away
- a burning feeling when you pee
- peeing often, and passing small amounts of urine
- urine that looks cloudy
- urine that appears red, bright pink or cola-colored — signs of blood in the urine
- strong-smelling pee
- pelvic pain, in particular in the center of the pelvis and around the area of the pubic bone
Types of UTI
Since infection can impact different parts of the urinary system, there are some variations in the signs or symptoms depending on what’s infected.
Here are the different types of UTI:1
1. Bladder infection: marked by pelvic pressure, lower belly discomfort, frequent, painful urination, and blood in the urine.
2. Urethra infection: signs are burning with urination and discharge.
3. Kidney infection: symptoms are typically back or side pain, high fever, shaking and chills, nausea and vomiting.
If you have the signs of kidney infection, or you experience increased pain, you develop a high fever or you’re vomiting, it’s vital that you get to a doctor immediately.2
How Do I Get a UTI?
If you have a UTI, you’re certainly not alone. Especially among women, UTIs are very common—about 20% of women will have a UTI at some point during their lives. It’s estimated that healthcare providers treat 8-10 million million people each year for UTIs.3
Other studies show that UTI is the most common bacterial infection, accounting for more than 8 million office visits and 1 million emergency department visits each year in the United States. The overall number of office visits for UTIs are twice as common among women of all ages compared with men.4
UTIs are most commonly caused when microorganisms, usually bacteria, enter your urethra and infect your bladder. The infection can also travel up from your bladder through your ureters and eventually infect your kidneys. E. coli bacteria, which typically exists in your lower intestines, causes more than 90% of bladder infections. Women are more susceptible because our urethra is shorter and closer to the anus, where the presence of E. coli bacteria is common.3
You can also get a UTI from your fingers, if your hands have picked up bacteria and other microorganisms. You can then accidentally introduce bacteria to your urethra when you go to the bathroom or during sexual acts. It’s important to wash your hands before and after going to the bathroom or having sex.3
While bacteria from your intestines may enter the urinary tract through the urethra—like when wiping after going to the bathroom, or after sex—often it’s not clear why it happens.5
There are other factors that could increase your risk of getting a UTI:
- you have a condition that obstructs your urinary tract, such as kidney stones5
- you have difficulty fully emptying your bladder5
- you’ve used a contraceptive diaphragm or condoms coated in spermicide5
- you have diabetes, or a weak immune system5
- you have a urinary catheter5
- you have a neurogenic bladder, which is when the relationship between the nervous system and bladder function is disrupted by injury or disease6
Age can also be a factor. Women become more prone to developing urinary tract infections as we grow older, and those who are postmenopausal are most vulnerable. The incidence of UTI decreases during middle age but rises in older women. One study showed that over 10% of women older than 65 had a UTI within the past 12 months. That number increased to almost 30% in women over the age of 85 years experiencing one annually.7
Do I Have To Get My UTI Treated?
If you’ve experienced a UTI in the past, and think you know what to expect, you may think it will just go away on its own. It’s a good idea to have your infection diagnosed and treated, however. That’s because if it’s left untreated, that seemingly harmless bladder infection can progress into a much more serious condition, like a kidney infection.8
A kidney infection can turn bad in a hurry, because it can travel through the bloodstream and cause sepsis, which can make you very ill and can even be critical.8
Proper diagnosis will help determine whether you need treatment. UTIs fall on a spectrum. Asymptomatic bacteriuria is an infection in what’s known as a colonization state, which does not require treatment. There’s also symptomatic and recurrent UTI, and sepsis associated with UTI requiring hospitalization.4
So in particular, if you have those more serious symptoms like side or kidney discomfort, fevers and/or chills, nausea, vomiting, confusion and dizziness, you need to get to a doctor right away.8
Before it gets that serious, a UTI can be easily treated, most commonly with antibiotics.
How Long Do UTIs Last Without Treatment?
If you decide not to see a doctor for diagnosis, and try to heal the infection without antibiotics, how long will that UTI last without treatment?
A urinary tract infection can last several days up to a week without being treated by antibiotics. If your symptoms persist longer than a week, then antibiotics are typically necessary. But, the timeframe for recovery may vary based on several factors. That includes the severity of the infection and whether you have other medical conditions that can slow down the healing process.9
Your body may be able to fight a urinary tract infection on its own by recruiting white blood cells to kill the bacteria. A UTI may also go away without treatment if the infection is mild; if you do not have a history of multiple past infections; or if you take steps to clear bacteria from your urinary tract, like drinking more water than usual, urinating as soon as you feel the urge, and avoiding anything that can introduce bacteria to the urinary tract.9
You should see a doctor if your UTI symptoms persist or worsen after a few days of trying to treat it on your own.9 If you do have prescribed medication, and you’re not feeling better after 48 hours, check back with your doctor.2 Your doctor may try different antibiotics or recommend another remedy that you haven’t tried.9
Many doctors actually advise against letting a UTI go away on its own, since it can lead to serious complications that can lead to long-term impacts like kidney damage.9
How Can I Prevent Getting a UTI?
While many women will get a UTI at some point in their life, there are some steps you can take to prevent infection.
Here are a few:2
- pee when you need to—don’t hold it in for a long time
- take showers instead of sitting in a bathtub
- avoid using feminine hygiene sprays and douches
- avoid wearing tight pants
- wear cotton underwear
- drink 8-10 glasses of water per day
- wipe front to back after using the toilet
- if sexually active, pee after intercourse
Other suggestions include using probiotics, which purportedly contain “healthy” bacteria that can destroy bad bacteria, and vitamin C, which may help strengthen your immune system.9 It’s also been suggested that cranberry juice is good for UTI prevention and treatment, but the evidence does not seem to be conclusive.10
See A Doctor
If you have symptoms of a UTI, it’s best to see a doctor for diagnosis and possible treatment. Use our Physician Finder to find a doctor near you with expertise in women’s health issues. If you leave a UTI untreated, and it gets worse, you risk an acute or complicated infection that can be serious. UTIs are a common condition that can easily be treated when caught early.