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How Women Dealt with Periods and UTIs Throughout the Ages

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profile iconBY JANA BARRET

Once upon a time, menstruating women would burn toads and put the ashes in their underwear to lighten a heavy flow. We’ve come a long way since the Dark Ages.

 Here’s a historical highlight reel of how women handled two of the more complicated aspects of womanhood: periods and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Urinary tract infections: treatment throughout the ages.

Getting a UTI is practically a rite of passage if you’re sexually active. About 60 percent of women will experience one at some point in life. They’re painful and frustrating, and for people who struggle with chronic infections, life-altering. But in most cases, when you’re hit with a UTI, you can treat it with a round of antibiotics and be back in action within a few days.

This wasn’t always the case though. Before the advent of antibiotics, UTIs were often fatal. The infections could easily become out of control, leading to systemic infections and, eventually, sepsis. The Department of Urology at Queen’s University documented the approaches to treatment throughout the ages in a 2005 study. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Ancient Times: Herbal formulas were the primary treatment option for UTIs. In Greece and Rome, doctors typically recommended bed rest, diet, and narcotics alongside herbs.
  • Middle Ages: No major advances were made in treatment, but existing herbal remedies were refined.
  • 19th Century: In addition to bed rest, healthy dieting, plasters, narcotics, and herbal enemas and douches, physicians began using bleeding with cupping and leeches to treat infections. Scientists eventually discovered that UTIs were caused by microorganisms, which led to deeper investigation into treatment options.
  • 20th Century: Physicians relied on the techniques described above until the discovery of penicillin in 1928. Cranberry juice became a popular option in the 20th century due to the widespread belief that it lowered the pH of urine, making it more acidic and preventing the growth of bacteria. (The American Medical Association published a study debunking the cranberry myth in 2016.)
  • 21st Century: Today, antibiotics are the primary form of treatment, but antibiotics are also often prescribed as a preventive measure for people with recurrent UTIs. The medical community has started to emphasize the risks of overusing antibiotics and there’s an increasing focus on developing alternative preventive remedies as the risk of antibiotic resistance grows. In 2017, Uqora launched as a safe and effective way for people to get proactive about urinary tract health (without cranberry or prophylactic antibiotics). Uqora and the medical community are pushing for a deeper focus on research to innovate in a space that’s been too stagnant for too long. 

A short history of period care.

PMS, stained underwear, and tampon taxes ain’t fun. But we’ve come a long way when it comes to period care. There are still loads of stigmas around menstruation that women come up against regularly. But today we’re blessed with all sorts of period care options, from menstrual cups to organic tampon subscriptions. And, in most cultures at least, menstruating women are no longer shunned from society while bleeding. So, baby steps!

Here are some of the ways women have managed menstruation throughout the ages:

  • Ancient Times: Women fashioned pads and tampons out of whatever they had on hand, from paper and wool to vegetable fibers and grass. (This would have been a rough time for people with sensitive skin.)
  • Middle-Ages: Torn-up rags were the top choice in period care. Women would place them in their underwear to soak up blood. (This is where the term “on the rag” comes from!) Other than that, they would just bleed into their clothes.
  • 19th Century: In the 1800s, women began placing pieces of rubber (AKA rubber aprons) in their underwear to collect the blood. Super comfortable! Later that century, the Hoosier belt was introduced. It was a sanitary pad attached to a belt that women could strap around the waist. And in 1888, Johnson & Johnson began selling the first disposable menstrual pads, known as Lister’s Towels. Shortly after, nurses began using wood pulp bandages (typically for wound care), which were highly absorbent.
  • 20th Century: Hoosier belts were worn up until the 1970s when the first adhesive sanitary pads were introduced. But in 1933, Dr. Earl Cleveland Hass invented the modern tampon after a friend told him she’d been inserting pieces of sponge into her vagina. He created the first applicator out of telescoping paper tubes, placed compressed cotton inside, and named his beautiful creation Tampax (“tampon” + “vaginal packs”). Over the next several decades, we saw many iterations of the tampon, from the applicator-free O.B. to the first scented varieties, and one particularly problematic version known as “Rely”—a tea-bag-shaped, synthetic nightmare that was highly absorbent, could be worn for days and was full of harmful chemicals. By the 1980s, every tampon on the market contained synthetic ingredients. Cases of Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), triggered by a bacterial toxin tied to tampon use, spiked in 1980, which led to super high-absorbency tampons being pulled from the market and an increased need for non-toxic solutions.
  • 21st Century: Luckily with innovative brands like Cora, we’ve seen an emphasis on safety and transparency. While conventional tampons have improved, they are still often made from a blend of super-absorbent rayon and bleached cotton. Cora commits to high-quality, organic ingredients, looking out for the safety of the humans who use their products. Hooray for options!

In the last century alone, our understanding of women’s health has evolved in all areas, and we’ve seen the advent of incredible products that have changed women’s lives for the better. Organizations are springing up left and right to address the unique challenges faced throughout womanhood—from pregnancy to fertility care to contraception. With the pace we’re moving at now, we can expect to see some amazing innovations in the next decade. And hopefully, we can put synthetic tampons and drug-resistant UTIs behind us forever.

Written By Jana Barret

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