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Your urinary tract is made up of several parts, including your kidneys, bladder, and urethra. Sometimes bacteria can infect your urinary tract. When this happens, it’s called a urinary tract infection (UTI).

The most common type of UTI is an infection of the bladder (cystitis). Infections of the urethra (urethritis) are also common.

Like an infection of the bladder or urethra, 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 a kidney infection.

A kidney infection can share many symptoms in common with other types of UTIs, such as cystitis and urethritis. Symptoms common to any type of UTI can include:

  • a painful or burning sensation when urinating
  • feeling like you need to urinate often
  • bad-smelling urine
  • cloudy urine or urine with blood in it
  • passing only a small amount of urine even though you have to urinate frequently
  • abdominal discomfort

In addition to the symptoms above, there are some more specific symptoms that can indicate that your infection has moved into your kidneys. These symptoms can include:

  • fever
  • chills
  • pain that’s localized in your lower back or side
  • nausea or vomiting

Normally, your urinary tract is well-equipped to prevent infections from occurring. This is because the regular passage of urine helps to flush pathogens out of the urinary tract.

UTIs occur when bacteria make their way into your urinary tract and begin to multiply, which can lead to symptoms. Many times, these bacteria are from your gastrointestinal tract and have spread from your anus into your urinary tract.

E. coli bacteria cause most UTIs. However, urethritis can also occur due to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Women are more likely to develop a UTI than men. This is because of the female anatomy. The female urethra is shorter and closer to the anus, which means bacteria have a shorter distance to travel in order to establish an infection.

If left untreated, these 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.

However, although most kidney infections occur due to the spread of another UTI into a kidney, they can sometimes occur in other ways as well. Kidney infections can also happen following kidney surgery or due to an infection that spreads from another part of your body besides the urinary tract.

Your doctor will diagnose a UTI by analyzing a sample of your urine. They can test the urine sample for the presence of things like bacteria, blood, or pus. Additionally, bacteria may be cultured from a urine sample.

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.

Often, your doctor will start you on an antibiotic that works against a wide variety of UTI-causing bacteria. If a urine culture is performed, they may switch your antibiotic to something that’s most effective in treating the specific type of bacteria that’s causing your infection.

There are also other medications available for treatment that are not antibiotic based.

Your doctor may also prescribe you a medication that helps to relieve the pain that comes with urination.

People with severe kidney infections may need to be hospitalized. In this case, you may receive antibiotics and fluids intravenously.

Following a kidney infection, your doctor may also request a repeat urine sample for analysis. This is so that they can check to see that your infection has completely cleared. If there are still bacteria present in this sample, you may need another course of antibiotics.

You may begin to feel better after only a few days on antibiotics, however you should still make sure that you complete your entire course of medication. If you don’t take all of your antibiotics, the stronger bacteria may not be killed, causing your infection to persist and flare up again.

While you’re being treated for any UTI, you can also do the following at home 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 pain medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help relieve pain. Using a heating pad to apply heat to your abdomen, back, or side can help to ease pain as well.
  • Avoid both coffee and alcohol, which can cause you to feel like you need to urinate more often.

You can help prevent getting 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, which ensures bacteria from your anus aren’t brought forward toward your urethra.
  • Urinating after sex, which can help to flush out bacteria that may have entered your urinary tract during sex

A UTI may still occur despite practicing preventative measures.

If you do have any symptoms of a UTI, it’s very important that you see your doctor. Getting a proper medical diagnosis and starting antibiotic treatment can help you to prevent getting a potentially serious kidney infection.