Doctors generally recommend against leaving a UTI (urinary tract infection) untreated for too long. Some patients wait for one or two days to see if symptoms subside on their own, but most require antibiotics.
This post explores the symptoms and causes of UTIs and the dangers of leaving them untreated for too long.
Table of Contents
- What Is a UTI?
- What Are the Symptoms of a UTI?
- What Causes UTIs?
- Can a UTI Go Away on Its Own?
- Is an Untreated UTI Dangerous?
- What Happens if You Don’t Treat a UTI?
- How Long Can You Leave a UTI Untreated?
- How to Treat a UTI?
- When to See a Doctor?
- How Can DrHouse Help You?
- Key Takeaways
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 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. Most urinary tract infections occur in the bladder, sometimes called cystitis. However, more serious infections, such as pyelonephritis, occur higher up.
What Are the Symptoms of a UTI?
The symptoms associated with kidney infections 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 sweats. 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 acquiring a kidney infection. 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?
Research suggests that 25 to 42 percent of uncomplicated UTIs go away by themselves. (“Uncomplicated” means that patients have no other health issues). Therefore, symptoms may disappear after they start.
However, most patients find that symptoms don’t go away with time and, instead, get progressively worse. If you fail to get the treatment you need, a more severe infection could develop.
Professionals recommend getting antibiotics if you have a UTI. 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).
A 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 is potentially 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.
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.
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?
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.
Doctors may consult with you and agree to monitor you instead of starting treatment immediately. They may suggest you wait one to two days to see if the infection goes away. If it doesn’t, they will provide you with antibiotics you can take, starting the second or third day after symptoms begin.
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, trimethoprim, sulfamethoxazole, 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 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. Lastly, 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. Most will prescribe antibiotics that you can start taking immediately.
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!
Is It OK to Ignore a UTI?
Most healthcare professionals recommend against ignoring a UTI. While some infections go away by themselves, most require antibiotics. Immediate treatment helps to prevent the infection from getting worse over time or spreading to other parts of the urinary tract.
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 blood steam. 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.
- UTIs are infections caused by bacteria that migrate from the anus to the urethra.
- Symptoms of UTIs include bladder pain, frequent urination, a burning sensation while peeing, and the feeling that you need to pee all the time.
- The dangers of leaving a UTI untreated include sepsis and long-term kidney damage.
- Physicians treat UTIs with antibiotics. If one antibiotic doesn’t work, they will try another.
- You should see a doctor about your UTI immediately if you have symptoms. Most won’t go away on their own
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- 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/
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- 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
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- 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/
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