Can you treat a urinary tract infection at home?

When a UTI hits, many people turn to home remedies like cranberries and baking soda.
Cranberries and cranberry juice
Deutschland, Studio, Cranberry-Saft und CranberriesGetty Images stock

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

Always rushing to the bathroom because of a constant need to pee? Does the urine burn on the way out or come with a lower abdomen ache? Uh oh, it might be a urinary tract infection.

Many people will try to relieve their UTI symptoms with self-treatment first, turning to old wives tales or common wisdom. But do home remedies work? Yes and no.

“We always recommend at least giving the physician a call,” Dr. Lauren Giugale, assistant professor at Women’s Center for Bladder and Pelvic Health at Magee-Women’s Hospital of UPMC in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. “Treatment depends on the patient.”

A UTI occurs when bacteria enter the urinary tract and get into the bladder. E-coli is the most common cause of infection, Giugale said, but other bacteria can cause a UTI, too.

“For some reason bacteria from the gut got into in the bladder,” she said. “Urinary tract infections are more common in women because of their anatomy.”

They are very common with more than half of all women experiencing one or more in their lifetimes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Women in menopause or those who use certain spermicides are at higher risk of developing a UTI.

“Usually they’re kind of random,” Giugale said. “Many women throughout their lifetimes will experience one and it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong.”

People who want to skip the doctor’s visit and treat their UTI at home most often turn to cranberry juice or pills to clear up the infection. While people believe the tiny fruit packs a huge healing punch, there’s not much evidence to back it up.

“The data has been mixed and a lot of it actually shows that cranberry doesn’t help,” Giugale said. “But, it’s one of those things that is pretty low risk.”

Some try other home remedies, including taking vitamin C or drinking diluted baking soda. But there's no data on dosage or if they even work.

"High doses of baking soda might be harmful," Dr. Christine Greves, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Florida, told TODAY.

Drinking it, even diluted, could cause nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. Rare cases of baking soda overdoses can lead to seizures, coma and death — or even stomachs exploding, said Greves.

As for taking vitamin C, people normally urinate most of it out and there's no proof that it treats a UTI.

While many home remedies have limited or no effect, drinking plenty of water can sometimes help.

“We say the secret to pollution is dilution,” Greves said. “If you are drinking more (water) that results in going to your kidneys, which can in turn hopefully flush out some of those bacteria.”

If people want to try treating their UTI by staying hydrated, taking over the counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen can help alleviate their pain. Warm compresses reduce some UTI discomfort, too. There are some over-the-counter medications specifically to treat UTI pain that numb the urinary tract, but ibuprofen works just as well.

While treating UTIs at home might not be as easy as having a glass of cranberry juice, the experts say women can stop urinary infections from happening. The most basic way to prevent UTIs is to wipe in the right direction after using the toilet — women should always wipe from front to back.

“That’s kind of a common sense thing,” Greves said. “If you wipe from back to front, what if there is fecal material, which has e-coli or other bacteria? They could be introduced to the urinary tract.”

Women also might want to urinate after intercourse.

“We often tell people that, but there’s little specific data,” Giugale said, “that says that those things are going to prevent urinary tract infection.”

However, it’s another low-risk way to lower the chance of getting a UTI. Urinating after sex might help the body dispel some bacteria moved around during intercourse.

“Sometimes there can be e-coli involved in it and the thought is to urinate afterwards,” Greves said.

If UTI symptoms don’t dissipate after a few days or women notice blood in their urine it’s time to contact a doctor. Untreated UTIs can become more severe or spread into the kidneys, which might require treatment with intravenous antibiotics.

“The ultimate thing is there's a bacterial infection growing and festering,” Greves said, “and they need to talk to their doctor to go on some antibiotic and fight this so it doesn't spread up into the kidney.”