How did people recover from bacterial infections in pre-anitbiotic days?

In the days before we had antibiotics, how did people recover from run-of-the-mill minor bacterial infections?

I mean things like a child getting an eye infection (my kids had pink eyes several times each). Or a woman getting a bladder or yeast infection?

Do they usually just go away if you leave them alone?

Then as now, bacterial infections usually resolve themselves eventually if you don’t treat them.

just a correction. yeast infection is not a bacterial infection. it’s a fungal infection

So if I get Conjunctivitis (pink eye) and do nothing, it will probably eventually go away? (This is totally hypothetical, neither I nor anyone in my household currently has Conjunctivitis)

Usually, yes.

Sometimes it would cause a more serious infection and kill you.

Most conjunctivitis is viral and doesn’t respond to antibiotics. Bacterial conjunctivitis will go away if untreated. Unless, of course, it gets worse.

Depends on the person, infection, etc. If not treated it could lead to worse problems or even death.

Wander down to the local historical graveyard from the 1800’s (or earlier). many of the gravestones if still readable indicate death at 1, or 2, or 5, or 30 years of age. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger - or at least your immune system.

Read the history of doctors washing their hands between handling patients. A doctor in Europe discovered that the teaching hospital maternity ward had a death rate 10 times that of the other maternity ward, which was handled (so to speak) by midwives. He eventually found that washing hands was the best defence against “childbirth fever” which often caused death. He was roundly condemned by his peers for insinuating that somehow they were “dirty”.

Your body will fight a disease fungal, baterial or viral - and either win, lose, or draw. People prefer to use drugs nowadays, so the win and in a shorter time. What we are really doing is training bacteria how to beat us next time. Resistant bacteria are becoming all too common.

Ignaz Semmelweis, in Vienna, in 1847.

I think it wasn’t that the other doctors had problems accepting that they were “dirty” - when they looked clean to the naked eye -, it was that they had to accept “invisible things making you sick” theory.

Semmelweis experimented which solution to use for handwashing by dirtying his hands with the worst stuff he could find, using a variety of solutions, starting with soap and moving to stronger, and smelling his hands after each step, reasoning that if he could still smell the cadaver, shit etc., then some trace of it was still left on his hands.

It’s really admirable to see the bravery of a lowly doctor like Semmelweis who shouted at the chief of the hospital to use the hand-washing solution, because he was convinced by the results that he was right, and that hierarchy was less important than saving lifes.

In the near past people used sulpher-based drugs to treat bacterial infections, and before that sometimes they were treated with mercury. (I remember “Mercurochrome” OUCH!)

I think that in the past it was probably also true that some malignant bacteria were out-competed by less hostile ones. There were simply more fauna around . . .

Re: Conjunctivitis In “Angela’s Ashes” and “'Tis” Frank McCourt describes having pink eye for 20-odd years. (“Eyes like two pissholes in the snow . . .”)

What’s funny is that the med community is going through a similar thing right now – a med student (IIRC) was able to demonstrate that one common way that germs are spread in medical settings is via things like neckties and the long sleeves of the traditional lab coat – all that dangling fabric. The white lab coat carries a lot of symbolism and is part of the current medical school graduation ceremony, and there is a huge amount of resistance to getting rid of them. It’s pretty clear that everyone in patient care should now be wearing short sleeves and no ties/scarves, etc., but it’ll be a long time before that’s the case.


Some things will clear on their own; my kids used to get a lot of ear infections and I read one article sometime afterwards that said that pediatricians often over-prescribe for ear infections and they normally clear on their own.

However, in other cases, like Scarlet Fever, it can be fatal.

People used to die from tooth abscesses.

Heat can kill bacteria, remember. Say you had an injury to a foot or leg, you could soak the infected area in very hot water to help the immune system along. Granted, go back far enough and there’s someone probably saying to grind up eye of newt and brew it, but it was still the heat of the soaking that helped.

and there were some primitive antibiotics even 300 years ago, coal tar or pitch for topical treatment, arsenic, sulfur and mercury compounds for internal (syphilis etc). Of course in many cases the cure was as likely to kill you as the disease

Someone has mentioned Mercurochrome, arsenic and the sulfur compounds. There was iodine in alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and potassium permanginate. Various salt solutions. Prayer, witchcraft and death. Others.

Let’s not forget plain old disability/crippling, too. Get an infection in an extremity that won’t clear up, and if you’re lucky it won’t spread via the blood stream. Maybe it can be “burned out” with some heated metal or coals, else hopefully you’ll survive the post-amputation period. Eye infection? You might get screwed-up sight in the eye or lose your vision completely, if your body can’t handle the bug on its own.

However, the resolution may include permanent damage or death along the path to resolution.

Untreated conjunctivitis can lead to permanently damaged eyesight.
Untreated strep throat can lead to some very serious complications.

I imagine they had to just take their chances in the old days.

Yeast infections aren’t bacterial infections, and they don’t kill you. Usually they go away on their own.

Still do, sometimes.

Wow. I had totally forgotten about that stuff. Here’s what Unca Cecil wrote about it.