If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI), it can be quite uncomfortable. While some UTIs can get better on their own, most of the time they don’t. If left untreated, a UTI can open you up to a very serious kidney infection.
A kidney infection, pyelonephritis, can be extremely painful—and even life-threatening, without proper medical care. So, the next time you think you might have a UTI, don’t put off seeing the doctor.
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Here’s what you should know about kidney infections, your potential risk and why you shouldn’t wait for treatment.
What is a kidney infection?
When you urinate, usually your urine flushes things like bacteria and viruses out of the urinary tract and prevents against infections. Sometimes, however, bacteria can enter the urinary tract and cause an infection.
“A kidney infection occurs when a UTI develops in your bladder or lower urinary tract and spreads to your upper urinary tract to one or both of your kidneys,” said Amy Sussman, MD, a nephrologist at University Medical Center Tucson and associate professor and vice chair of education in the University of Arizona Department of Medicine. “A kidney infection can lead to a renal abscess, bacteria in the blood, sepsis and shock. This makes it more dangerous for a UTI to spread to the kidneys."
A kidney infection will often begin as a bladder infection, but in some cases, it can result from bacteremia, when bacteria gets in the blood.
Am I at risk for getting kidney infections?
Whether a man or woman, sometimes you are just more susceptible to developing a kidney infection than others. There are some things that can up your chances, but there are other things, such as certain health conditions, that you may have zero control over.
You may be at greater risk due to the following:
- Behavioral: If you are sexually active, using spermicide and diaphragms or holding urine.
- Being female: In women, there is a smaller distance between the anus and urethra making it easier for bacteria to get into the urinary tract and cause infection.
- Genetic: You may have an inherent risk for developing bladder and kidney infections.
- Biological: If you are postmenopausal or have urinary incontinence, glycosuria (a condition where urine contains more sugar than it should – most common for those with diabetes) or an enlarged prostate.
- Abnormal anatomy: If you have a structural or functional abnormality, such as a spinal cord injury, a backward flow of urine called vesicoureteral reflux, or a misshapen urinary tract or bladder.
What are kidney infection symptoms?
Since a kidney infection is a type of severe UTI, the two conditions can share some overlapping symptoms, including:
- A painful or burning sensation when you urinate
- An urgency to urinate often
- Foul-smelling urine
- Cloudy urine or urine with blood in it
You may not always have lower tract symptoms, but the following common symptoms of a kidney infection include:
- Flank (kidney) pain on the side of your body
- Occasional pain in your upper or lower abdomen
- Nausea and vomiting
“Kidney infections can vary person to person and by age,” Dr. Sussman said. “For the elderly, it can present with fever and chills but may also affect their mental state, causing things like confusion and slurred speech.”
When should I go to the doctor?
A kidney infection can develop quite quickly over a few hours or days, so don’t wait to see the doctor. Any of the above symptoms of a UTI or kidney infection should trigger a visit to your doctor for a proper evaluation and diagnosis.
A doctor can diagnose a kidney infection by analyzing the results of your urine tests. If you test positive for a kidney infection, you’ll be prescribed oral antibiotics and, in some cases, a medication that helps relieve pain with urination. If treated promptly, a kidney infection shouldn’t cause serious harm.
If you experience a fever over 101°F, pain, are unable to drink or take oral medication along with some of the other symptoms, get to the nearest urgent care or ER. For more serious infections, your doctor may keep you in the hospital for observation with IV antibiotics followed by outpatient oral antibiotics.
After completing the full course of prescribed antibiotics, you should feel better. If you don’t, talk to your doctor, as you may need another course of antibiotics.
Is there anything I can do to prevent a kidney infection?
When it comes to preventing a kidney infection, it’s all about preventing UTIs that affect your urethra and bladder. Here are some ways you can help avoid an infection:
- Wipe from front to back. For women, this ensures bacteria from your anus doesn’t enter your urethra.
- Drink plenty of fluids to help flush the urinary tract.
- Don’t “hold it.” Use the bathroom when you need to go and fully empty your bladder.
- Avoid using spermicide and diaphragms, and choose another form of birth control, such as lubricated condoms.
- Use the bathroom after sex to reduce bacteria that colonizes the urethra. “There is no convincing data that it is effective, but it isn’t harmful,” Dr. Sussman added.
- Postmenopausal women who develop recurrent cystitis may benefit from vaginal estrogen to reduce vaginal dryness.
- Don’t rely on over-the-counter remedies to treat your UTI, like cranberry juice or D-Mannose, to prevent a UTI or kidney infection. “Several studies have shown no benefit with cranberry supplements or juice,” Dr. Sussman said.
Is it safe to take antibiotics long-term to prevent recurring infections?
While there are some common side effects and risk for creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is safe to take antibiotics preventively under the guidance of your physician.
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“If you have recurring UTIs (meaning you get them more than three times a year and they impact your quality of life), you may benefit from a low-dose prophylactic (intended to prevent disease) antibiotic,” Dr. Sussman said. “Some may require intermittent treatment at the sign of symptoms, while others may require a single dose after sexual intercourse or when symptoms occur. However, it’s important you discuss the underlying causes with your doctor before being prescribed antibiotics prophylactically (preventively).”