How did people treat UTIs before the advent of antibiotics?

November 08, 2017 Alexandra Rank

Old fashioned people

UTIs are responsible for 8.6 million doctor's visits per year the United States—but how were UTIs treated before antibiotics? 

When you get sick, what do you do? There’s a good chance that you go to the doctor. If you have a bacterial infection, it’s rarely a problem to find antibiotics that will have us feeling better in a matter of days.

Antibiotics have not been around forever. In fact, the use of antibiotics for curing common infections did not become popular until the middle of the 20th century, when the drug penicillin became attainable to the general public. Before the introduction of antibiotics, humans were forced to use other methods for curing infections.

But what would you have done before antibiotics were around? We know that UTIs are the second most common infection in the United States, accounting for about 8.6 million visits to health care providers each year. So what did all of those people do before antibiotics were an option?

In times when curing sickness was not as simple as going to the doctor, people had to find their own remedies and treatments for UTIs.

The history of UTI treatment can be traced alongside the treatment of many different bacterial infections throughout time. The ancient Egyptians recommended herbal treatments for nearly any disease or infection, regardless of the symptoms. This can be seen in parallel to ancient Roman and Greek scientists, whose best advice for curing infection was bed rest, healthy dieting, and herbal remedies. No real advancements were made in terms of UTI treatment until the 19th and 20th centuries when the research was done to investigate what it was that was causing urinary tract infections.

There are many detailed accounts of UTIs in the early 19th century, according to Dr. J. Curtis Nickel MD, although those describing these infections did not know that UTIs were caused by microorganisms.

Management included hospitalization, bed rest, attention to diet, plasters, narcotics, herbal enemas and douches, judicious bleeding (direct bleeding, cupping and leeches), and surgery for stones, abscess and retention.The discovery of microorganisms as the etiological agents of infectious diseases in general and inflammation associated with urinary diseases, in particular, provided an impetus for physicians critically to examine management approaches and develop evidence-based strategies for UTI treatment.

The next wave of home-remedies was primarily dominated by cranberry juice. For many years people drank cranberry juice in an effort to lower the pH of their urine. Although there are anecdotes of cranberry juice helping with prevention and treatment, perhaps the most beneficial side effect of drinking cranberry juice is hydration since cranberry juice and products have not been able to stand up in controlled studies. 

In 2016, the American Medical Association published a study confirming that cranberry is ineffective; the findings were widely covered as the cranberry myth. CNN Health summarized these findings saying, "It's time to move on from cranberry." 

Most likely, if you came down with a UTI before antibiotics were available, the infection would either clear up on its own or evolve into a much more severe kidney or bladder infection. It's hard to know for sure what happened to you if you developed a UTI before antibiotics since the infections weren't understood at the time, and therefore often recorded properly. For instance, some people speculate that Virginia Rappe, famous Hollywood actor who died in 1921, was killed by a complicated UTI although the recorded cause of death is a ruptured bladder. 

There’s no doubt that antibiotics are an extremely effective treatment of UTIs. Even still, there can be too much of a good thing. As we continue to use antibiotics, the problem of antibiotic resistance becomes more and more prevalent. Antibiotic resistance refers to the ability of bacteria to resist the effects of an antibiotic to which they were once sensitive and is a direct result of the overuse of antibiotics. This issue has become increasingly problematic for women who suffer from recurring UTIs and can no longer cure their infections with a round of antibiotics.

Thankfully we now understand more about both UTI prevention and treatment than ever before. Clinical trials have shown that there are natural ingredients that when highly concentrated can help prevent bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract. At Uqora, we’ve collaborated with a team of physicians to leverage the best clinical research available and bring you an effective, safe drink mix to stop UTIs before they start. By preventing UTIs, you can save antibiotics for when you really need them.


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