Acute pyelonephritis is most common in adult females but can affect people of either sex and any age. Its onset is usually sudden, with symptoms that are often mistaken as the results of straining the lower back. Pyelonephritis is often complicated by systemic infection. Left untreated or unresolved, it can progress to a chronic condition that lasts for months or years, leading to scarring and possible loss of kidney function.
Causes and symptoms
The most common cause of pyelonephritis is the backward flow (reflux) of infected urine from the bladder to the upper urinary tract. Bacterial infections may also be carried to one or both kidneys through the bloodstream or lymph glands from infection that began in the bladder. Kidney infection sometimes results from urine that becomes stagnant due to obstruction of free urinary flow. A blockage or abnormality of the urinary system, such as those caused by stones, tumors, congenital deformities, or loss of bladder function from nerve disease, increases a person's risk of pyelonephritis. Other risk factors include diabetes mellitus, pregnancy, chronic bladder infections, a history of analgesic abuse, paralysis from spinal cord injury, or tumors. Catheters, tubes, or surgical procedures may also trigger a kidney infection.
The bacteria that are most likely to cause pyelonephritis are those that normally occur in the feces. Escherichia coli causes about 85% of acute bladder and kidney infections in patients with no obstruction or history of surgical procedures. Klebsiella, Enter-obacter, Proteus,or Pseudomonas are other common causes of infection. Once these organisms enter the urinary tract, they cling to the tissues that line the tract and multiply in them.
Symptoms of acute pyelonephritis typically include fever and chills, burning or frequent urination, aching pain on one or both sides of the lower back or abdomen, cloudy or bloody urine, and fatigue. The patient may also have nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The flank pain may be extreme. The symptoms of chronic pyelonephritis include weakness, loss of appetite, hypertension, anemia, and protein and blood in the urine.
The diagnosis of pyelonephritis is based on the patient's history, a physical examination, and the results of laboratory and imaging tests. During the physical examination, the doctor will touch (palpate) the patient's abdomen carefully in order to rule out appendicitis or other causes of severe abdominal pain.
In addition to collecting urine samples for urinalysis and urine culture and sensitivity tests, the doctor will take a sample of the patient's blood for a blood cell count. If the patient has pyelonephritis, the urine tests will show the presence of white blood cells, and bacteria in the urine. Bacterial counts of 100,000 organisms or higher per milliliter of urine point to a urinary tract infection. The presence of antibody-coated bacteria (ACB) in the urine sample distinguishes kidney infection from bladder infection, because bacteria in the kidney trigger an antibody response that coats the bacteria. The blood cell count usually indicates a sharp increase in the number of white blood cells.
The doctor may order ultrasound imaging of the kidney area if he or she suspects that there is an obstruction blocking the flow of urine. X rays may demonstrate scarring of the kidneys and ureters resulting from long-standing infection.
Treatment of acute pyelonephritis may require hospitalization if the patient is severely ill or has complications. Therapy most often involves a two-to three-week course of antibiotics, with the first few days of treatment given intravenously. The choice of antibiotic is based on laboratory sensitivity studies. The antibiotics that are used most often include ciprofloxacin (Cipro), ampicillin (Omnipen), or trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra). The primary objective of antimicrobial therapy is the permanent eradication of bacteria from the urinary tract. The early symptoms of pyelonephritis usually disappear within 48 to 72 hours of the start of antibacterial treatment. Repeat urine cultures are done in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the medication.
Chronic pyelonephritis may require high doses of antibiotics for as long as six months to clear the infection. Other medications may be given to control fever, nausea, and pain. Patients are encouraged to drink extra fluid to prevent dehydration and increase urine output. Surgery is sometimes necessary if the patient has complications caused by kidney stones or other obstructions, or to eradicate infection. Urine cultures are repeated as part of the follow-up of patients with chronic pyelonephritis. These repeat tests are necessary to evaluate the possibility that the patient's urinary tract is infected with a second organism as well as to assess the patient's response to the antibiotic. Some persons are highly susceptible to reinfection, and a second antibiotic may be necessary to treat the organism.
The prognosis for most patients with acute pyelonephritis is quite good if the infection is caught early and treated promptly. The patient is considered cured if the urine remains sterile for a year. Untreated or recurrent kidney infection can lead to bacterial invasion of the bloodstream (bacteremia), hypertension, chronic pyelonephritis with scarring of the kidneys, and permanent kidney damage.
Persons with a history of urinary tract infections should urinate frequently, and drink plenty of fluids at the first sign of infection. Women should void after inter-course which may help flush bacteria from the bladder. Girls should be taught to wipe their genital area from front to back after urinating to avoid getting fecal matter into the opening of the urinary tract.
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"Pyelonephritis." HealthOnline Page. 26 Feb. 1998 <http://www.healthonline.com>.
Kathleen D. Wright, RN
Bacteremia—The presence of bacteria in the bloodstream.
Cystitis—Inflammation of the bladder, usually caused by bacterial infection.
Reflux—The backward flow of a fluid in the body. Pyelonephritis is often associated with the reflux of urine from the bladder to the upper urinary tract.