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Your urinary tract is made up of several parts, including your:
Sometimes bacteria can infect your urinary tract. When this occurs, it’s called a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Like a bladder or urethra infection, a kidney infection is a type of UTI.
While all UTIs require medical evaluation and treatment, a kidney infection can be quite serious and can lead to potentially severe complications. For this reason, it’s important to know when your UTI is also a kidney infection.
A kidney infection can share many symptoms with other types of UTIs. Symptoms common to any type of UTI can include:
- a painful or burning sensation when urinating
- feeling like you need to urinate often
- passing only a small amount of urine, even though you have to urinate frequently
- foul-smelling urine
- cloudy or bloody urine
- abdominal discomfort
There are also specific symptoms that can indicate that your infection has moved into the kidneys. In addition to the symptoms above, a person with a kidney infection might also experience:
Your urinary tract is normally well equipped to prevent infections. The regular passage of urine helps to flush pathogens out of the urinary tract.
When bacteria make their way into your urinary tract and begin to multiply, UTIs occur. This can lead to symptoms. These bacteria have often come from your gastrointestinal tract and spread from your anus into your urinary tract.
Women are more likely to develop UTIs than men. This is because the female urethra is shorter than the male urethra and closer to the anus. Bacteria have a shorter distance to travel in order to establish an infection.
If left untreated, UTIs can continue to spread upward into your kidneys. A kidney infection can lead to serious complications, including kidney damage or a life threatening condition called sepsis.
In other words, kidney infections are generally the result of a less severe UTI’s progression due to lack of treatment.
Although most kidney infections occur because another UTI has spread into a kidney, there are other possible causes.
A kidney infection can also occur when a kidney stone blocks the urinary tract, which traps bacteria and leads to infection. This can quickly become very serious and requires immediate medical attention, which may include a urological procedure to remove or break up the stone.
Kidney infections can also occur following kidney surgery or as a result of an infection that spreads from a part of your body that’s not the urinary tract.
First, the doctor will ask you about your symptoms. This information will help them differentiate between a simple UTI and a kidney infection.
Additionally, bacteria may be cultured from a urine sample.
Your doctor may also order certain blood tests to check for systemic signs of infection. These tests include a white blood cell count, blood cultures, and tests to check your levels of inflammatory markers.
If the doctor suspects that you have a kidney infection, they may order imaging tests, such as a CT scan of your abdomen and pelvis.
UTIs, including kidney infections, can be treated with a course of antibiotics. The type of antibiotic can depend on the type of bacteria that’s causing your infection as well as how severe your infection is.
The doctor will often start you on an antibiotic that works against a wide variety of UTI-causing bacteria. If a urine culture is performed, the doctor may switch your antibiotic to one that’s most effective at treating the specific bacterium that’s causing your infection.
Simple UTIs can be treated with short 3- to 5-day courses of antibiotics. Treatment for kidney infections generally lasts 7 to 14 days, depending on which class of antibiotic is prescribed.
You may begin to feel better after only a few days on antibiotics. However, you should still make sure that you complete your entire treatment course as prescribed. If you do not take all of your antibiotics, the stronger bacteria may not be killed, causing your infection to persist and flare up again.
If you’re pregnant, your doctor may also request a repeat urine sample following a kidney infection, even if your symptoms have resolved. This allows them to check to see whether your infection has completely cleared.
If there are still bacteria present in the sample, you may need another course of antibiotics. Persistence of bacteria can potentially harm an unborn baby.
People with severe kidney infections may need to be hospitalized. In this case, you may receive antibiotics and fluids intravenously.
There are other products available for treatment that are not antibiotics.
Your doctor may also prescribe a medication that helps to relieve the pain that comes with urination.
At-home tips to try
While you’re being treated for a UTI at home, try these tips to lessen any discomfort you may feel:
- Drink plenty of fluids to help speed healing and flush bacteria from your urinary tract.
- Take over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol), to help relieve pain.
- Apply a heating pad to your abdomen, back, or side. This can help relieve pain as well.
- Avoid both coffee and alcohol, which can cause you to feel as if you need to urinate more often.
You can help prevent UTIs by doing the following:
- Drinking plenty of fluids. This helps to keep your urine dilute and also ensures that you urinate frequently, which flushes bacteria out of your urinary tract.
- Wiping from front to back. Wiping from front to back ensures bacteria from your anus are not brought forward toward your urethra.
- Urinating after sex. This can help to flush out bacteria that may have entered your urinary tract during sex.
A UTI may still occur despite these and other preventive measures.
If you do have any symptoms of a UTI, it’s very important that you see a doctor. Getting a proper medical diagnosis and starting antibiotic treatment can help to prevent a potentially serious kidney infection.