Whenever a patient tells me about calling her doctor with symptoms of a urinary tract infection and being refused an antibiotic because he “never” prescribes one without a urine culture, I know the doctor has never experienced a UTI himself. Let’s face it….bladder infections are a girl thing, and most doctors are, well, male. So they haven’t experienced constantly racing to the john with this uncontrollable urge to pee, then managing to squeeze out a few drops of seemingly liquid fire.
Now, of course, the “correct” thing to do is try to get an appointment with your doctor. Problem is, bladder infections do begin in the middle of the night, and often on weekends, and oftener when you’re on vacation.
So rather than suffer needlessly, begin some of the treatments that we recommend at WholeHealth Chicago, and you just might save yourself a trip to the emergency room. Certainly if things get worse, call the doctor. But you should be able to make significant progress during the first 36 hours, especially if you have all the appropriate supplies handy.
What are Urinary Tract Infections?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) can occur anywhere in the urinary system: kidneys, bladder, urethra. Infections are divided into “upper,” when the kidneys are infected, and “lower,” affecting the bladder and the urethra, the tube that channels urine from the bladder. When the kidney is involved, the infection is also called “acute pyelonephritis.” Lower infections are called “cystitis”or simply “bladder infections.” UTIs are usually a female problem because women have a short urethra, which allows bacteria from the vaginal and rectal area to migrate up into the bladder. Men, protected by a longer urethra that is basically the length of the penis, and then some, rarely get bladder infections.
Normally, copious urine flow will wash out these bacteria, but sometimes they continue to proliferate. Left untreated, the bacteria can migrate still further up the ureters (two tubes connecting the bladder with the kidneys) and settle into the kidneys themselves. This produces the far more serious acute pyelonephritis. Once in the kidneys, the bacteria are usually picked up by the bloodstream and the infection spreads systemically (“blood poisoning”), producing a high fever, chills, and profound exhaustion. Acute pyelonephritis always requires high doses of antibiotics, which are usually given intravenously.
- Bladder or Lower UTIs:
- Frequent urination, as often as every few minutes.
- Urinary urgency, the sense you’ve got to get to the toilet immediately.
- Passing only small amounts, which can be quite burning and painful.
- Unpleasant-smelling, cloudy or dark-colored urine.
- Low-grade fever.
- Cramps or heaviness in the lower abdomen.
- Acute Pyelonephritis or Upper UTI:
- All of the above, plus high fever, chills, weakness, and possibly severe back pain.
What Causes Urinary Tract Infections?
The urinary tract is particularly vulnerable to attack by bacteria. Although urine is sterile (germ free) when it’s manufactured by the kidneys and enters the bladder, nevertheless bacteria from the vaginal and rectal area can migrate up the urethra. Once bacteria are present in the bladder, they can affix themselves to the bladder wall, begin an inflammation, and start proliferating. Making the bladder environment as uncomfortable as possible for bacteria, such as by drinking copious amounts of fluid to wash its walls, or making the urine acidic, can initiate a self-healing process. Risk factors for allowing bacteria to gain a foothold into the bladder include: ignoring an urge to urinate, drinking an insufficient amount of fluid, improper wiping after urinating or moving your bowels (you should always wipe away from the urethral opening, from front to back), sexual activity (especially with a new partner, the so-called ‘honeymoon cystitis’) and pregnancy.
Treatment and Prevention
An everyday urinary tract infection can easily bloom into a more dangerous kidney infection, so it’s unwise to use natural therapies for more than 36 hours before getting a physician’s advice. If tests confirm a UTI, the doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics.
Until that point is reached, though, there’s no reason not to try self-treatment. And, should you need to see the doctor, the self-treatment remedies are all compatible with the antibiotics that will very likely be prescribed.
How Supplements Can Help
Vitamin C–also known as ascorbic acid–serves a dual purpose in urinary tract infection treatment: It makes urine more acidic and therefore more hostile to bacteria, and it reinforces the body’s immune system.
Cranberry keeps bacteria from clinging to the walls of the urinary tract and, like vitamin C, acidifies the urine (cranberry is rich in vitamin C). In one test, elderly women who drank cranberry juice daily had fewer UTIs than women who drank less. A little-known fact is that cranberry also helps to deodorize urine.
The exact mechanism of the herb uva ursi is unknown, but this evergreen bush (also known as bearberry) contains substances that work well against UTI for some people. Experts don’t recommend taking uva ursi together with vitamin C and cranberry because they weaken its effect. They also suggest that this potent natural remedy be taken no more than five times a year by most people, and not at all if you have kidney disease or are pregnant.
Goldenseal, echinacea, and nettle teas can soothe inflamed tissues, and the extra liquid helps flush bacteria out of the urinary tract.
Acidophilus is a good idea for those on antibiotics because it restores the decimated population of bacteria that defend the digestive and urinary tracts. Acidophilus is sometimes combined with another “good” bacterial source, bifidus.
Use a home test, available in drugstores, to help you find out if you have a UTI.
Drink a big glass of water once an hour or alternate with cranberry juice. Purchase the unsweetened form, then add a little honey or apple juice to reduce its tartness. Don’t buy cranberry “drinks,” which are heavily sugared. All this fluid increases the flow of urine, which then washes harmful bacteria out of your system.
Relieve pain with over-the-counter painkillers and a heating pad or hot water bottle.
Don’t “hold” it when you have to urinate.
Keep the genital and anal areas clean. Wash before and after intercourse; always wipe from front to back after defecation.
Keep the genital and anal areas dry. Wear cotton underwear, which allows air to circulate; remove damp or wet clothing promptly after exercising or swimming.
Swab the genital area with cool goldenseal or echinacea tea. These pleasant washes may help to prevent recurrences in women who are prone to bladder infections.
Avoid feminine hygiene sprays and scented douches, which may irritate the urinary tract.
Urinate soon after intercourse.
Consider switching birth control methods. Spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 change the balance of bacteria in the vagina, allowing more dangerous ones to proliferate.
When to Call a Doctor
- If you still have burning, pain or other symptoms after 24 to 36 hours of self-treatment
- If you have burning along with a vaginal or penile discharge
- If you have fever, chills, or back pain
- If you see blood in your urine
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The supplements we recommend for urinary tract infections at WholeHealth Chicago should be taken as soon as you notice the key symptom of an infection–burning during urination. At this point you should also be sure to drink plenty of water–at least one 8-ounce glass per hour. This helps flush out any harmful substances through increased urine flow.
If you don’t notice any improvement in your symptoms within 24 to 36 hours of using the supplements, call your doctor, who can test you for an infection and, if necessary, prescribe antibiotics. You can continue taking the recommended supplements during the course of antibiotic treatment.
How to Take the Supplements
Begin by taking extra vitamin C, which acidifies the urine, and thereby helps to keep infectious bacteria in the urinary tract from flourishing.
Cranberry, another acidifier, also makes it harder for bacteria to stick to the lining of the urinary tract. Having capsules of concentrated cranberry is obviously a lot easier than carrying around a jug of the juice, but both work equally well. You can certainly alternate them or use both together. Just remember that most grocery store cranberry juice is simply a cranberry-flavored sugar drink, which won’t be particularly effective. Instead you need to look in a health-food store for a straight cranberry juice (sweeten with a little honey or apple juice) or a cranberry-apple juice blend.
As an alternative to the vitamin C and cranberry, some people have found the herb uva ursi to be effective–though how it halts the infection isn’t clear. Don’t take this herb with vitamin C or cranberry, however, because the two acidifying supplements may cancel the uva ursi out. Also don’t use uva ursi for longer than a week, or more than five times a year.
Also, herbal teas made from goldenseal, echinacea, and nettle can be very beneficial. Each of these herbs can be taken with the above supplements to enhance the immune system–and using them in a tea increases your fluid intake, helping to flush out bacteria.
If you’re on antibiotics: If you do see your doctor and an infection is confirmed, you will probably be prescribed antibiotics to take. Since these drugs can kill off healthy bacteria along with those causing the infection, consider taking acidophiluswhile using antibiotics. The acidophilus helps restore a normal balance of healthy bacteria.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD