Flush It Away
One in four women will experience a urinary tract infection in her lifetime. Here's how to stop the discomfort and prevent another episode

By Annette Spence

In the summer of 2000, Rose Raney was a stressed-out woman. At that time, Raney's husband was undergoing a liver transplant in a Virginia hospital hundreds of miles from home. Raney was constantly by his side—watching, worrying, praying.

The last thing Raney needed was a bladder infection, but a few days after her husband's surgery, she recognized the telltale signs from previous infections: She frequently felt the need to urinate, and when she did, it burned.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) afflict one in four American women at some point in their lives, often when they're under stress, according to researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. A person who has had one infection is also 25 percent more likely to have another.

UTIs are caused when germs travel up the urinary tract to infect the bladder. Women are more susceptible than men to these infections because of their anatomy. The female urethra, a narrow tube that urine passes through, is about two inches long and straight—easy for bacteria to navigate—but the male urethra is up to ten inches long and bends in several places.

Signs of UTIs
Once a woman contracts a UTI, symptoms can come on quickly. Besides a frequent, strong urge to urinate, the patient may find that she releases very little urine. The urine may appear milky or tinged with blood and may cause pain or burning when passed. Soreness may occur in the lower abdomen, back, or sides. If infection progresses to the kidneys, symptoms may also include chills, fever, nausea, and vomiting.

There are several things you can do to decrease your UTI risk (see "Take 10"). Waiting too long to urinate can stretch and weaken the bladder, making it difficult to expel all the urine and increasing the risk of a UTI. Drinking lots of liquids, especially water, helps to flush out bacteria.

Chronic stress also may contribute to the onset of an infection, just as stress, by suppressing the immune system, can be a contributing factor to any infection. Other common sources of bladder infections include the use of diaphragms or chemical-laden feminine products or wearing tight or nylon underwear. For many women, sexual intercourse seems to trigger UTIs; during sex, bacteria in the vaginal area could be massaged into the urethra by the motion of the penis or other sexual contacts. Women who are pregnant, past menopause, or diabetic are also at higher risk for UTIs.

Cures For The Pain
The first step to treating a UTI is always to see your primary-care provider, says Suzanne Lawton, ND, of Tigard, Oregon. "A diagnosis is really important. An infection can become serious in a matter of days," she says. Left untreated, UTIs can lead to kidney infections, which may require hospitalization and can even be fatal.

Medical doctors usually prescribe antibiotics for UTIs, while naturopaths may consider other options first. Antibiotics have been shown to be effective in treating bladder infections, but they also wipe out "friendly flora" that protect the body from disease. As a result, repeated antibiotic use predisposes women to vaginal yeast infections as well as rebound UTIs. "I see a lot of women who really want to avoid using antibiotics because they've become very sick with yeast overgrowth," says Maureen Melendez, ND, of Atlanta, Georgia. "I try to give them options."

If the infection is treated before it becomes full-blown, a naturopath or herbalist will probably prescribe herbs with antimicrobial properties, such as uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi), garlic (Allium sativum), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis). However, if the infection hasn't improved within 24 hours of beginning herbal treatment, or if the infection is severe, antibiotic treatment is recommended, says Melendez. "I usually give acidophilus bacteria to help with the negative effects of antibiotics," she says. Eating one or two cups of active-culture yogurt daily will also encourage beneficial bacteria to keep yeast growth under control.

Herbs also can help relieve the symptoms of a UTI, even when antibiotics are used. A soothing, healing herb such as cornsilk (Zea mays) or marshmallow (Althea officinalis), for example, may reduce the burning sensation. Research has also shown that drinking unsweetened cranberry juice can prevent reinfection while the bladder heals after an initial infection (see "Juicy Cures").

Finally, as tempting as it might be to self-select an herbal blend to conquer your malady, it's best to get an expert's advice. "For five different people I might use five different sets of herbs," Lawton says. "It all depends on what the symptoms are, and on the patient."

Used improperly or for longer periods than a few weeks, herbs can do more harm than good and can even be toxic. Used properly, the right mix of herbs can nip UTIs in the bud and save you from the pain of experiencing another.

The bottom line is to tend to the problem before it escalates. Raney set herself up by neglecting to drink enough fluids or to make regular trips to the bathroom. "I didn't have time to stop and take care of things like I should have," says Raney, now happily back at home with her husband. Once she sought help, her bladder infection quickly cleared up.

Annette Spence lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband and two sons. Her health articles have appeared in Child, Parents, Walking, and Weight Watchers.