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A urinary tract infection (UTI) is the most frequently diagnosed infection that only requires treatment on an outpatient basis. For most people, UTIs aren’t serious, and as a result, you may wonder if you really need to see your doctor when you develop symptoms. Read on to learn when it’s best to promptly schedule an appointment—and when you might want to try home remedies.

Assessing your symptoms

Before you can decide to practice self care for a UTI, you need to feel fairly certain that you have one. Some other conditions also have the potential to cause symptoms similar to those of a UTI. The most common symptoms of a urinary tract infection include:

  • Strong urge to urinate
  • Frequent urination
  • Low urine output
  • Burning when you urinate
  • Feeling like you can’t empty your bladder
  • Cloudy urine
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Red, pink or brown-colored urine
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Low-grade fever

Some of the symptoms that suggest something else may be responsible include:

  • Urinary urgency that comes and goes: If your only symptom is the strong urge to urinate, you may have an overactive bladder (OAB). An OAB also causes urine leakage and waking up frequently at night to urinate. Normally, an OAB requires medical care, so see your primary care provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan. 
  • Genital itching: Most of the time, UTIs don’t cause itching. This symptom may be the indication of a vaginal yeast infection, skin irritation, a bacterial vaginal infection or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), so it’s wise to see your primary care provider as soon as possible.
  • Abnormal or foul-smelling vaginal discharge: UTI-like symptoms accompanied by vaginal discharge are likely due to a different type of infection that should be diagnosed by a doctor.
  • Rash or bumps in the genital area: Any textural or visual changes to the skin around the genitals could be an allergy, irritation or an infection. A doctor will be able to diagnose the problem.

One way to increase your certainty about whether or not you have a UTI is to use a home test kit. Urinary tract infection tests involve dipping a test strip in a urine sample or urinating directly onto a strip. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the strip will indicate whether or not certain bacteria are present in your urine sample. Test strips check for the most common forms of bacteria, but it’s possible for other microorganisms to cause an infection. As a result, you could have a UTI despite a negative at-home test.

Can you treat a urinary tract infection at home?

Urinary tract infections occur when bacteria enters the urinary tract, the system that removes liquid waste from the body in the form of urine. The immune system does have the ability to fight off some infections on its own, so theoretically, it’s possible for a UTI to clear up with no additional interventions. 

Here are some self-care tips that can help you feel more comfortable and support the function of your immune system:

  • Take phenazopyridine hydrochloride (Uristat), an over-the-counter medication that relieves urinary pain.
  • Increase your intake of water to flush bacteria out of the urinary tract.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, carbonated beverages, sugar, and acidic foods, which can irritate the bladder.
  • Apply a heating pad, hot water bottle, or warm compress to the abdomen to ease pressure and pain.
  • Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night for immune support.
  • Manage your stress as much as possible to aid in immunity.
  • Try a probiotic supplement, or eat yogurt and fermented foods to boost the body’s supply of beneficial bacteria that supports your immune system

Trying a wait and see approach

Urinary tract infections that occur in the urethra (urethritis) or bladder (cystitis) are not medical emergencies. However, a lower urinary tract infection can spread into the kidneys and cause a more serious infection. Kidney infections (pyelonephritis) can result in permanent damage to the organs or pass bacteria into your bloodstream and spur a potentially life-threatening, widespread infection.

The longer a lower UTI persists, the greater the risk of developing a more serious kidney infection. As a result, you should not ignore UTI symptoms that persist for more than a couple of days after you try the self-help tips above—even if the symptoms are relatively mild. If your symptoms worsen, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.

Symptoms of UTIs you should never ignore

If you develop any of the following symptoms, seek medical attention promptly:

  • Pain in your back or side
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • High fever

These symptoms suggest that you have a kidney infection rather than a simple lower urinary tract infection. See your doctor as soon as possible to reduce your risk of serious health complications. If you stop urinating entirely, seek emergency medical care, as you may have a kidney or bladder stone or another other type of urinary obstruction.

Special circumstances that make a doctor’s visit imperative

For some people, a wait-and-see approach to urinary tract infections isn’t the best solution. If any of the following apply to you, you’re likely to need a prescription antibiotic from a primary care provider to clear the infection and avoid health complications.

You have diabetes

People with diabetes are more prone to infections due to immune system problems stemming from prolonged high blood sugar. When you develop a urinary tract infection, your body will also have a harder time fighting off the bacteria on its own. An antibiotic prescribed by your doctor will help remove the bacteria causing the infection.

You have had three or more UTIs in one year

Doctors consider UTIs that occur three or more times per year to be chronic urinary tract infections. Chronic UTIs can occur due to elements in your lifestyle, habits that you have, products that you use for personal care and underlying health conditions. Your primary care provider can rule out any medical problems that might be causing frequent UTIs and discuss small changes that you can make to cut down on the frequency of infections.

You have kidney disease or other urinary or kidney problems

Any chronic condition that impacts your kidneys, bladder, or urethra may interfere with your body’s ability to heal from an infection and put you at an increased risk for complications from a UTI. Your primary care provider is in the best position to determine how to effectively treat the infection.

You are pregnant

Hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy make you more likely to develop a UTI. While there isn’t any evidence that UTIs are more serious in pregnant women than other people, an untreated infection could result in a potentially dangerous kidney infection. Your primary care provider will consult with your OB/GYN to determine which antibiotic is safe for you to take.

You use a catheter

Individuals who use catheters regularly are more likely to develop urinary tract infections than those who don’t. In addition to seeking treatment for your infection, you can discuss catheter care with your primary care provider for tips on how to reduce your risk of infection.

You are over the age of 65

Your immune system naturally loses some of its infection-fighting power as you age, making it less likely that a urinary tract infection may clear up on its own. In addition, older adults may experience temporary symptoms of dementia during a UTI. By seeing your doctor at the first signs of a urinary tract infection, you can lower the likelihood of experiencing confusion.

Post-menopausal women are at an increased risk for UTIs due to hormonal changes. If you frequently develop UTIs after menopause, your doctor may recommend that you use an estrogen-based cream, as studies show it may help prevent chronic infections.

You have a compromised immune system

Anyone with a compromised immune system will likely need antibiotics to treat a UTI. Some common causes of compromised immunity include:

  • HIV
  • Lupus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Certain cancer treatments
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDS)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Recent organ transplant

You are a smoker

In addition to increasing your risk for cancer and lung disease, smoking negatively impacts your immune system. People who smoke are more likely to recover from even minor infections at a slower pace than other individuals. If you postpone medical treatment, you may be at an increased risk for your infection to spread. See your primary care provider for treatment. They can also put together a smoking cessation program to help you quit for good if you’re ready to kick the habit.

How Forward simplifies treatment for urinary tract infections

With Forward as your primary care physician, there’s no need to put off seeing your doctor for a urinary tract infection. You can easily schedule an in-person appointment or opt for a convenient online visit. Getting your prescription filled requires just a few clicks, and home delivery means your antibiotics are in hand fast. Plus, we can discuss your lifestyle and habits and run assessments and diagnostic tests to identify potential causes of chronic UTIs, so you can reduce their frequency or possibly prevent them going forward.

No long waits. No surprise bills. No copays — ever.

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