Urinary tract infections, also called UTIs, are a common occurrence in older adults, especially women. In Western medicine UTIs are caused by the presence of bacteria, often E. coli, in the bladder. These bacteria travel up the urethra, and if left untreated, can also affect the kidneys. Managing a urinary tract infection quickly is important. If left untreated, these infections may spread, causing damage to the bladder, kidney, urethra, and genital tissue.
The symptoms of a UTI include burning on urination, the sensation of needing to urinate and being unable to void, itching in the genitals, or pain in the lower abdomen. Patients may also have an overall feeling of being unwell, including fever, irritability, or insomnia.
Healthy urine should pass easily, be straw-colored and free of cloudiness. In the case of a UTI, the urine may be dark in color, cloudy, milky, or even streaked with blood. The presence of blood in the urine indicates the infection is severely irritating the lining of the kidneys, bladder, or urethra.
Women are more likely to contract UTIs because of the short length of their urethras, or the passage between the bladder and the outside. Many women who suffer from UTIs show a chronic recurrence of these symptoms. For women who wear padded protection against accidents, a lack of breathability in the vaginal area can create an environment for bacteria. Also, patients who are unable to bathe regularly present a higher risk for developing a urinary tract infection.
Western medicine treats UTIs with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, the duration, and the patient’s history of naturally managing UTIs, alternative treatments are available.
We will focus on acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and dietary medicines, though there are other resources for UTIs in Western herbalism and homeopathy. My experience is that women often discover the best combination of alternative treatments for their particular body; no “one way” is right for every patient.
Chinese medicine treats the cause of UTI in many different ways, depending on the patient’s age, constitution, symptoms, and overall health picture. UTIs come about due to a variety of factors, including environmental, biological, and emotional. Certain types of UTIs are initiated by psychological upset and can be traced back to stress or anxiety. In Chinese medicine these infections are treated differently than UTIs caused by tight-fitting clothing, hygiene issues, or eating the wrong foods.
UTI symptoms fall on a spectrum. Some women experience intense burning with urination. Other women feel bloated and swollen, as if their urine cannot pass through the urethra because the passage is narrower than usual. Still others may feel no pain at all but notice their urine is cloudy. I have also known of women who simply felt like they had the flu but could not point to the bladder being the cause of their discomfort.
Once I have determined the cause of the problem, I develop an acupuncture plan and may prescribe a Chinese herbal formula designed to address the infection. Most UTIs can be cleared up with a few treatments and a week of herbs. If your symptoms are recurring though, we need to determine what is triggering the infection and eliminate the irritant.
The vagina and opening of the urethra are sensitive to changes in temperature and the presence of chemicals. I recommend all women wear cotton underwear, which is the most breathable fabric available, to keep the vaginal area cool and dry. If you wear pads or panty liners to manage incontinence, choose products that are made of organic cotton and a minimal amount of plastic. Organic cotton cloth diapers are a good solution for patients who need round-the-clock protection. Currently, there are no organic cotton disposable adult diapers on the market. I am hopeful these become available soon. Above all, make sure the underwear, pads, or diapers are changed regularly to minimize the risk of bacteria from the colon entering the urethra.
Drinking plenty of water will help your body flush the bacteria out of the bladder. You may also add 100% cranberry juice to your diet. Just make sure your juice does not contain any added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. All bacterial infections are “fed” by the simple sugars found in sweet fruits and refined sweeteners. The best dietary change you can make to make the body inhospitable to bacterial infections is to cut refined sugars and alcohol.
A simple, effective home remedy for UTI is drinking corn silk tea. Corn silk is the “hair” that grows around the corn ear and is sloughed off before eating the kernels. This “silk” is soothing to the urinary tract and also has a mild taste. You can make a tea from the silk or buy encapsulated corn silk to be taken as a pill. This remedy is not for patients who are taking blood thinners (Coumadin, Plavix, etc.) or diuretics for high blood pressure or edema. If you are not taking these contraindicated medications and are experiencing recurring UTIs, consider buying a bottle of corn silk pills to keep on hand for future infections.
It is critical to remember that some urinary tract infections are best managed with antibiotics. Longstanding infections, or infections in patients who have compromised immune systems, should be addressed through Western medicine. If you are unsure whether your symptoms should be treated with antibiotics, make an appointment with your doctor. For mild infections, acupuncture, herbs, and dietary therapy may offer relief.
We are happy to talk with you about your symptoms and your health history to determine if Chinese medicine is the right choice for you.