You think you might have a urinary tract infection. Should you call a friend, call a doctor, or make an immediate trip to urgent care?
First of all, don’t panic. Although UTIs are uncomfortable, they’re common and easy to treat. Around half of women will experience at least one UTI in their lifetime, and the vast majority of those infections will clear up within a week or two.
Do a little internet sleuthing, and you’ll quickly find that cranberry juice is a popular DIY remedy. Some people swear by drinking this sour beverage to prevent UTIs or treat existing ones.
But does cranberry juice actually help, or is it just a placebo? And if it does help, which type of cranberry juice is best for UTI relief? Before you run to your local grocery store, let’s talk about the science behind this surprising and controversial alternative treatment. (Spoiler alert: We might bust a few myths along the way.)
What Is a UTI?
A urinary tract infection (UTI for short) is an infection in your urinary system caused by unwanted bacteria.
Here’s how it works: Bacteria, often from the rectal area, enters the urethra and triggers inflammation. The most common type of bacteria to cause a UTI is escherichia coli (E.coli for short), which is already present in the digestive system and sometimes on the skin.
However, when E. coli gets where it’s not supposed to be (like in your urinary tract), the area can quickly become irritated.
- Burning or stinging sensation during urination
- Cloudy urine
- Frequent urge to urinate
- Unusually strong- or bad-smelling urine
- A feeling of pressure or cramping in the lower abdomen
What Causes a UTI?
Urinary tract infections have a variety of causes, and some people are more likely to get them than others. Here are the factors at play:
- Genetics: Research shows that if someone in your immediate family gets recurring UTIs, you’re also more likely to get them. Why? It probably has to do with your body’s immune response to UTI-causing bacteria.
- Biological sex: People with vaginas (generally, though not always, those who identify as female) are more likely than people with penises to develop UTIs. Blame genital anatomy. In people with vaginas, the rectal area is close enough to the urethra that it’s not inconceivable that bacteria would end up in the wrong place. By contrast, the urethra and rectum are farther apart when someone has a penis. It is possible for someone with a penis to get a UTI, it’s just much less common than it is for those with vaginas.
- Age: Post-menopausal women are more likely than younger women to get UTIs due to things like urinary incontinence and estrogen deficiency. Women who had recurrent UTIs in their younger years might get them even more often after menopause.
- Sexual activity: One major downside to sex is that it increases your risk of getting a UTI. Think about it: Any type of friction in your genital area can allow bacteria to move around down there, potentially getting into your urethra and triggering infection.
- Hygiene: People who don’t consistently practice preventive hygiene—including urinating after sex, changing underwear frequently, and wiping front to back in the bathroom—are at increased risk for developing frequent UTIs.
- Spermicide: Spermicide may work as a contraceptive, but it contains ingredients that can be tough on your genital area. Plus some research has shown that it contributes to an increased likelihood for UTIs because it affects your body’s natural balance of bacteria.
Can Cranberry Juice Really Help Treat a UTI?
Now for the million-dollar question: Is cranberry juice really the magic elixir people claim it to be for UTI relief?
Well…not totally. Some studies have shown that cranberry products can help prevent UTIs, but other research calls this into question, saying that it’s really impossible to consider whether this works for everyone. (Remember, UTIs are caused by a variety of different things, and some people are naturally at higher risk than others.)
Why does cranberry juice supposedly help UTIs? Cranberries are chock full of antioxidants and vitamin C. Also, some evidence suggests that compounds in cranberries called proanthocyanidins may help stop E. coli and other bad bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract.
The American Urological Association even says that clinicians can offer cranberry juice as an option for patients to prevent recurring UTIs—but it shouldn’t take the place of other, more well-established treatments doctors have been using for years.
How much cranberry juice do you need to help prevent or treat a UTI?
Since the jury is out on the efficacy of cranberry for this purpose, there is no set recommendation for how much cranberry juice to drink to prevent UTIs.
One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that drinking eight ounces of cranberry beverage each day helped lower the recurrence of UTIs in women. But that study was sponsored by a cranberry juice company.
So, as you can imagine, that’s a potential conflict of interest. Take “expert” recommendations with a grain of salt here since we don’t have clear data to support a consensus on how much cranberry juice to drink to prevent or treat UTIs.
Is one type of cranberry juice better than another for UTI?
No one type of cranberry juice is the best for UTI prevention, but it is important to be mindful of the ingredients list.
Pure cranberry juice is extremely bitter and practically undrinkable, so the kind you buy at the store is usually diluted quite a bit. And the more pure your cranberry juice, the more likely you are to get a health benefit.
Be mindful of the sugar content too. Most store-bought cranberry juices contain high amounts of added sugars, and the FDA recommends a maximum of about 50 grams of added sugars per day.
In other words, you won’t be doing your body any favors by chugging three glasses of sweetened cranberry juice cocktail each night (even if it’s labeled a “wellness drink” by the brand).
Some drug stores also sell cranberry supplements or cranberry capsules for UTI prevention, but these aren’t typically regulated by the FDA, so you’ll have to vet them yourself.
Other Ways to Treat a UTI
Doctors most commonly treat a UTI with a regimen of antibiotics. Sometimes mild UTIs will go away on their own, but there’s a risk they could get worse, even leading to medical conditions like bladder infection or kidney infection if left untreated.
No home remedy has proved to be as effective as antibiotics for treating a UTI. So while cranberry juice can be a tool in your arsenal to help prevent UTIs, it shouldn’t take the place of seeing a urology expert for treatment when you develop an infection. If you’re not a fan of the way antibiotics affect your digestive system, use a regimen of probiotics to counter some of those effects.
How do you get rid of a symptomatic UTI fast? It’s impossible to cure an infection instantly, as much as you might want to when you’re dealing with that burning, stinging feeling. But with a prescription, most UTIs can be cleared up within a week or two, and you’ll go back to feeling normal ASAP.
Once your UTI is clear, you can focus on hygiene tips to prevent another UTI. Always urinate after sexual activity (including masturbation), wipe toilet paper from front to back, and change out of wet or sweaty clothes within a few hours. This will lower your risk of recurrent urinary tract infections.
When to See a Doctor
It’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider anytime you might have a UTI. They can help you figure out if your symptoms are consistent with a urinary tract infection or if you might have something else, like a yeast infection, sexually transmitted infection, or interstitial cystitis.
Talking about sexual health or any kind of issue “down there” can be uncomfortable, but trust us when we say your doctor is here to help. The worst case scenario is that you avoid your symptoms and then come in only when they start to get worse.
If you start noticing the following symptoms, it’s a sign your UTI might be turning into a kidney infection:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Back pain
This is serious business and will require medical expertise to avoid further complications. No home health remedy takes the place of expert care when you need it most.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know that you can get UTI treatment online through K Health?
We have clinicians available 24/7 to get you the care or medication that you need.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.