Do UTIs always require antibiotics and how quickly will symptoms get better?
The abdominal pain and burning urination of a UTI is an awful experience and, understandably, you want to get rid of the symptoms as fast as possible. Antibiotics can make this happen within 2-3 days, if, and only if, you make sure to get the right kind of antibiotic. There are many different E. coli bacteria strains that can cause UTIs and some of them are resistant against commonly prescribed antibiotics.
Therefore, your doctor will advise you to do a “urine culture”. That is a lab test of your urine, where the bacteria in your urine are allowed to multiply in a petri dish and then are attacked with different antibiotics to see which one works best. This may take 2-3 days. So, if you feel you have a UTI in the making, don’t wait too long but see a doctor right away. During the waiting period you’ll have to manage the pain and in the sections below we give you several tips on how to do just that.
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In the U.S., doctors are quick to prescribe antibiotics for treating UTIs, often at their patients’ insistence. There’s research evidence that this sometimes is a bit of overkill. In fact, a healthy body has strong defense mechanisms to deal with UTIs on its own. This is particularly true if you are a young and healthy woman. If it’s a simple UTI, in many cases it will go away by itself as the good bacteria in your urinary tract defeat the bad ones and put the whole ecosystem back into balance. However, it will be an uncomfortable process and in the age of antibiotics you may ask: why wait and endure the pain? 200 years ago there were no antibiotics and women had to fight it out, but nowadays you can get relief right away.
Well, there may be good reasons why you want to avoid taking antibiotics right away. You may have known allergies against antibiotics. Or, if you had vaginal yeast infections in the past, taking antibiotics could trigger a new one, because antibiotics also kill good bacteria in the urinary tract. So, depending on your health, age, severity of UTI, and medical history, your doctor will decide whether to prescribe antibiotics right away or wait a few days to see whether the infection disappears on its own. In the latter case, it’s important to know how to best manage UTI symptoms.
Five simple steps for reducing UTI symptoms
Here are five steps you can take to make the pain and discomfort more bearable, regardless of whether you are still waiting for an antibiotic prescription, decided to forgo antibiotic treatment, or already are taking antibiotics. Several of these steps also are conducive to preventing UTIs from recurring in the future.
- Stay hydrated. This is the most important rule. You want to frequently drink liquids (ideally just water) over the course of the day, so that you have to urinate frequently. Every time you pee your bladder gets a chance to wash out any unwanted bacteria.
- Avoid beverages & food that irritate the bladder. This includes coffee and other caffeine-rich drinks, alcohol and juices, as well as citrus fruits. These things can unnecessarily irritate the urinary tract and upset the recovery process. It’s also a good idea to eat less sugar, as a lower urine sugar level will slow bacterial growth.
- Dress in dry and warm clothing. Regardless of the time of the year, you want to be dressed comfortably warm but avoid sweating. So, make sure the materials of your underwear and pants are breathable. Moist, sweaty underwear can worsen UTIs. This “warm & dry” dress rule also applies to the future, if you want to lower your chances of getting a UTI again. During a UTI a heating pad on your abdomen can ease bladder pain and cramps.
- Avoid sex. Sexual intercourse but also oral sex can contaminate your already fragile urinary tract with more bad bacteria. This is something to avoid and even after you no longer have any UTI symptoms or stopped taking antibiotics it’s recommended to not have sex for another week or two.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can reduce the pain. Tylenol (or any generic acetaminophen) and ibuprofen are common painkillers that can lessen UTI related pain and discomfort. Of course, they don’t cure the UTI — that part is up to your body or antibiotics — but they’ll make the symptoms much more tolerable. There also are specialized urinary tract pain relievers, such as Azo and Uristat. Talk to your physician to find out which OTC drug will be the best for you.
- Storme, Oscar, et al. “Risk Factors and Predisposing Conditions for Urinary Tract Infection.” Therapeutic Advances in Urology, vol. 11, Jan. 2019, p. 175628721881438, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6502981/, 10.1177/1756287218814382. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.
- Wawrysiuk, Sara, et al. “Prevention and Treatment of Uncomplicated Lower Urinary Tract Infections in the Era of Increasing Antimicrobial Resistance—Non-Antibiotic Approaches: A Systemic Review.” Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, vol. 300, no. 4, 26 July 2019, pp. 821–828, 10.1007/s00404-019-05256-z. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.
- Linhares, Inês, et al. “Incidence and Diversity of Antimicrobial Multidrug Resistance Profiles of Uropathogenic Bacteria.” BioMed Research International, vol. 2015, 2015, pp. 1–11, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4365316/, 10.1155/2015/354084. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.