What Happens if a UTI Goes Untreated for Too Long?

UTIs, or urinary tract infections, are common bacterial infections that affect millions of people every year. While UTIs are easily treatable with antibiotics, they can become serious if left untreated.

If a UTI is left untreated for too long, it can lead to serious complications such as kidney infections, reduced kidney function, and even sepsis which is a life-threatening infection that spreads throughout the body.

Key takeaways:

  • UTIs are common bacterial infections that can be easily treated with antibiotics.
  • If left untreated, UTIs can lead to serious complications such as kidney infections, reduced kidney function, and sepsis.
  • UTIs won’t go away on their own and require medical treatment to fully clear the infection.

Continue reading to learn more about the symptoms and causes of UTIs and the dangers of leaving them untreated for too long.

Table of Contents

What Is a UTI?

UTI is an abbreviation of urinary tract infection, one of the most common conditions in the U.S., with a lifetime incidence of 50 to 60 percent for women. 

UTIs mostly occur when bacteria from the skin or rectum enter the urethra and then spread to the rest of the urinary tract, including the bladder, ureters, and kidneys. There are also fungal and viral UTIs but those are rare.

Most urinary tract infections occur in the bladder, sometimes called cystitis. However, more serious infections, such as pyelonephritis, occur higher up in the urinary tract.

What Are the Symptoms of a UTI?

The symptoms associated with UTIs differ depending on the location. 

The most common symptoms of a bladder UTI are pain and burning while urinating, the frequent need to urinate, and feeling the urge to urinate, even if the bladder is empty. If infections progress without treatment, patients can also experience bloody urine and cramping in the lower abdomen and groin area. 

Kidney-related UTIs tend to have more severe symptoms, including fever, chills, and lower back pain. Patients often report pain in the lower back area, around the kidneys, and may feel nauseous or vomit. 

What Causes UTIs?

The most common cause of UTIs is fecal matter entering the urinary tract. The material travels from the anus to the genitals, carrying infection-causing bacteria. If these survive, they enter the urethra and multiply, causing inflammation and UTI-associated symptoms. 

The distance between the anus and urethra is shorter for women. Therefore, they are at a higher risk of developing UTIs than men. Bacteria are much more likely to survive and reach the bladder or kidneys intact. 

Multiple factors increase the risk of getting a UTI. The primary risk for women is having sex. Researchers believe that intercourse disrupts bacteria close to the urinary tract, making it more likely they will get inside.

Pregnancy can also put women at higher risk. Hormonal changes disrupt the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to fight infection. 

Conditions that make it difficult to empty the bladder also contribute to higher UTI risk. Bacteria live naturally in the urinary tract but don’t usually build up to the levels required to cause symptoms because of regular urination.

However, patients who can’t pee frequently can’t flush out their system, providing more opportunities for germs to thrive. For instance, men with enlarged prostates and children with constipation are at a higher risk. 

People with weakened immune systems may also experience an uptick in UTI risk. Malnourished or immuno-compromised patients may develop urinary tract infections, even if they have never had them before. 

Other risk factors include:

  • Kidney stones (because these block the passage of urine through the kidneys and other parts of the urinary tract)
  • Urinary catheters (devices placed inside the urethra to enable a patient to pee)
  • Chemotherapy (also a cause of weakened immunity)
  • Failing to keep the area around the anus and genitals sufficiently clean
  • Not drinking enough fluids to flush the urinary tract regularly
  • Changes in the bacterial composition of the urinary tract due to spermicides or menopause

Given the long list of causes and risk factors, preventing UTIs is challenging. However, there are several things you can do to reduce your chances of getting an infection. Good strategies include drinking more often, including cranberries in your diet, washing before and after sex, and peeing after sex.

You can also reduce your risk of UTIs by taking showers instead of baths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Showering may dramatically reduce the risk of bacteria migrating from your rectum to your urethra. 

Can a UTI Go Away on Its Own?

A UTI most likely won’t disappear without treatment. The body can fight an infection, but only to a certain extent.

In extremely rare cases very mild UTIs may resolve without antibiotic treatment. Also in some cases, asymptomatic UTIs may go away on their own.

However, it is always recommended to get antibiotics if you have a UTI to prevent any possible complications.

Despite efforts of research and scientific investigations, there is still no proof that other treatments work. Antibiotics are highly effective and work against nearly all types of infections, even if some bacteria have antibiotic resistance. (For example, your healthcare provider may take a sample of bacteria from your urinary tract and test which antibiotics are effective against it in the laboratory before prescribing medication). 

Antibiotics get to work immediately, and most patients feel better within a day or two. Side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting which go away after you finish your course (usually just three to seven days). 

2020 meta-analysis found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (such as naproxen and ibuprofen) may also help patients with mild to moderate UTIs when taken for a week. Patients recovered faster on antibiotics during the first three to four days, but there was no difference between the groups by day seven. 

Is an Untreated UTI Dangerous?

An untreated UTI can be dangerous. Bacteria can spread throughout the body and become life-threatening. Further infections can also develop in the urinary tract, causing significant discomfort and kidney damage. 

In modern societies, there is no reason to leave a UTI untreated. Doctors can recognize symptoms quickly and prescribe the medications you need immediately. 

What Happens if You Don’t Treat a UTI?

The dangers of failing to treat a UTI can be substantial. Many patients experience a worsening of their condition or further complications. 

Pyelonephritis

UTIs can develop into pyelonephritis, an infection that occurs in the kidney. Research shows that a significant proportion of women with cystitis will go on to develop the disease. 

If you have pyelonephritis, you may notice additional symptoms, including fevers and chills, pain in the side (sometimes called “flank pain”), and nausea, with or without vomiting. 

Treating pyelonephritis with antibiotics is essential. Some people with the disease are at a higher risk of kidney damage and scarring, increasing the risk of hospitalization. Those at the highest risk of complications include the young elderly, people with abnormal urinary tracts, and individuals with weakened immune systems. 

Sepsis

UTIs that go untreated can become sepsis, a life-threatening condition where your immune system goes into overdrive to eliminate an infection. Excessive inflammation can then lead to organ failure. 

Approximately 20 percent of people who get sepsis do not survive. Therefore, patients must take antibiotics to prevent this complication. 

People over 65 are at the highest risk of developing sepsis. It is also more common in individuals with suppressed immune systems, diabetes, or a history of urinary tract procedures. 

Sepsis can lead to high body temperature, rapid breathing, and swelling. It can also cause profound confusion and cause patients to go into shock, where blood pressure drops dangerously low. 

Reduced Kidney Function

UTIs can also lead to kidney damage, reducing kidney function over time. This complication can be particularly severe among people over 65 with existing kidney trouble and can lead to kidney failure. Infection can also pass through the kidney into the bloodstream, affecting other organs. 

Kidney damage is usually irreversible. Therefore, patients may need to go on dialysis or get a kidney transplant. 

How Long Can You Leave a UTI Untreated?

Leaving a UTI untreated can be dangerous, and you should never wait to see if an infection goes away on its own. You should seek medical attention as soon as you notice UTI symptoms. Cystitis can progress into more serious kidney infections in as little as a week. 

In some rare cases, doctors may monitor you for a day or two instead of starting treatment immediately, based on the severity of symptoms and the patient’s overall health. But they most likely will prescribe antibiotics as soon as possible to prevent potential complications. 

Remember, most UTIs won’t go away on their own. Furthermore, it is not possible to determine if the infection is mild or will develop into a more serious condition. 

How to Treat a UTI?

Medical professionals treat UTIs with antibiotics. The type they use depends on the bacteria in your urinary tract. Prescriptions for uncomplicated UTIs include fosfomycin, bactrim, cephalexin, ceftriaxone, and nitrofurantoin

Most healthcare professionals recommend against using fluoroquinolones (a type of antibiotic) because the risks outweigh the benefits. Medics will usually only prescribe these if your infection is resistant to other antibiotics. 

If you have frequent urinary tract infections, defined as two episodes of cystitis in six months, doctors may also recommend alternative treatments. For example, they may prescribe low-dose antibiotics that you take for six months or longer. They may also recommend taking a dose of antibiotics after intercourse if your UTIs relate to sex.

If you are at menopause age, they may recommend vaginal estrogen therapy. This treatment adjusts the bacterial flora in the urinary tract, making it less likely you will get another infection. 

Finally, doctors may prescribe intravenous antibiotics if you have a severe UTI. These flood your bloodstream with bacteria-fighting compounds, helping to fight off sepsis. 

When to See a Doctor?

You should visit a doctor quickly after you notice the onset of symptoms to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

You should also return to your doctor if you notice symptoms are getting worse. If this happens, you may require a different type of antibiotic. 

How Can DrHouse Help You?

DrHouse can help you get a diagnosis and treatment for your UTI from the comfort of your home. With us, you can start online doctor visits on-demand and 24/7 whenever you need them. The average wait time is under 15 minutes and you can even get prescriptions delivered right to your door.

Sign up for DrHouse now and start getting the help you need for your UTI. You don’t have to worry about long waits, overcrowded doctor’s offices, or leaving the house. Get started today and take care of your health!

FAQ

Is It OK to Ignore a UTI?

No, it is not OK to ignore a UTI. Ignoring a UTI can lead to serious complications such as sepsis and reduced kidney function. It is important to seek medical attention as soon as you notice any symptoms of a UTI. Even if your symptoms seem mild, it is better to be safe and get proper treatment rather than risk the infection becoming more severe.

What Happens if a UTI Is Left Untreated for Too Long?

If you leave a UTI untreated for too long, you may develop complications, including kidney infections and sepsis. These conditions can be fatal. 

Can a UTI Be Fatal if Not Treated?

Patients can die from UTIs if the disease causes sepsis, a life-threatening condition where large quantities of toxic bacteria spread throughout the body via the bloodstream. The risk of sepsis is higher among older adults, but it can occur at any age. 

Urosepsis usually begins in the kidneys. Bacteria travel from the bladder via the ureters, causing an infection that enters the bloodstream. Once in the blood, bacteria spread rapidly, causing multiple organ failure.

How Do I Know if My UTI Has Turned Into Sepsis?

Doctors test for sepsis by measuring your breathing rate, blood pressure, and white blood cell count. If these markers are higher or lower than normal and you had a UTI recently (or still have one), they will diagnose urosepsis. Symptoms include fever, organ failure, changes in your mental state, and trouble breathing or getting enough oxygen. Many patients with sepsis also experience shock because their blood pressure falls below 100 mmHg or they have high levels of lactic acid in their bodies, preventing cells from using oxygen correctly.

How Do You Know if Your UTI Has Spread to the Kidneys?

UTI symptoms change if the infection spreads to your kidneys. Bladder-based UTIs cause pain while urinating, a constant urge to go to the toilet, and sometimes blood in the urine. By contrast, kidney-based UTIs cause lower back pain, chills, and fever. 

Sources: 

  • Urinary Tract Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/uti.html 
  • Aggarwal N, Lotfollahzadeh S. Recurrent Urinary Tract Infections. [Updated 2022 Dec 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557479/ 
  • Martin GS. Sepsis, severe sepsis and septic shock: changes in incidence, pathogens and outcomes. Expert Rev Anti Infect Ther. 2012 Jun;10(6):701-6. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1586/eri.12.50
  • Vik I, Bollestad M, Grude N, Bærheim A, Damsgaard E, et al. (2018) Ibuprofen versus pivmecillinam for uncomplicated urinary tract infection in women—A double-blind, randomized non-inferiority trial. PLOS Medicine 15(5): e1002569. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1002569
  • Zhang, Yu; Wu, Jian-Guo; Zhou, Hong-Ji; Huang, Wen-Xiang; Jia, Bei, Efficacy of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs for Treatment of Uncomplicated Lower Urinary Tract Infections in Women: A Meta-analysis. Infectious Microbes & Diseases 2(2):p 77-82, June 2020. | DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.1097/IM9.0000000000000020 
  • Bergamin PA, Kiosoglous AJ. Non-surgical management of recurrent urinary tract infections in women. Transl Androl Urol. 2017 Jul;6(Suppl 2):S142-S152. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.21037/tau.2017.06.09
  • Habak PJ, Griggs, Jr RP. Urinary Tract Infection In Pregnancy. [Updated 2022 Jul 5]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537047/
  • Bono MJ, Leslie SW, Reygaert WC. Urinary Tract Infection. [Updated 2022 Nov 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470195/ 
  • Medina M, Castillo-Pino E. An introduction to the epidemiology and burden of urinary tract infections. Ther Adv Urol. 2019 May 2;11:1756287219832172. doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1177/1756287219832172.

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