10 Signs of a Kidney Infection to Know, and When to Go to the Hospital
10 Signs of a Kidney Infection to Know, and When to Go to the Hospital
Here's why they occur, and when to take action.
You’re probably not constantly on the lookout for signs of a kidney infection. But getting a urinary tract infection (UTI) can open you up to also getting an infection in one or both kidneys, which means this is an illness that should be on your radar. Yep, it's an unfortunate truth: A urinary tract infection can lead to a kidney infection, which is medically known as pyelonephritis and can be incredibly serious. So if you’re experiencing symptoms of a UTI and thinking, Eh, I can wait a few more days to get those antibiotics, think again . Here’s what you need to know about the signs of a kidney infection, its underlying causes, why it’s so important to get treatment as soon as you can, and more.
What Is a Kidney Infection?
Kidney infections are technically a type of UTI , since kidneys are part of your upper urinary tract, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). These infections are typically caused by bacteria called Escherichia coli (E. coli) that is usually found in the large intestine but can wreak havoc when it finds itself in the urinary tract.
Kidney infections are “one of the most common urologic conditions that we see in general urology practice,” Fara Bellows, M.D., a urologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Still, kidney infections are no joke.
“This is a serious organ infection, and people need to take care of it,” urologist David Kaufman, M.D., of New York’s Central Park Urology , tells SELF. “Bladder infections are really uncomfortable, but kidney infections can be deadly.”
Kidney Infection Causes
Kidney infections start out in the bladder as a lower urinary tract infection , says Bellows. (Hence UTIs are sometimes called bladder infections.) If the bacteria aren’t eradicated and instead move higher up, you can wind up with a kidney infection.
How do the bacteria get to your bladder in the first place, you ask? Well, usually the bacteria move from the anus (remember, E. coli is common in the GI tract) to the urethra, the small tube that carries urine out of your body—and the entrance to the urinary tract, according to the Mayo Clinic . From there the bacteria can move into the bladder, then into the kidneys through the ureters, which are the tubes that connect the bladder to the kidneys.
Bacteria can more easily make its move from the anus to the urethra if you do things like wipe back to front instead of front to back . More rarely, you can get a kidney infection if bacteria enters your blood during surgery and gets to your kidneys, the NIDDK says . We’ll discuss more risk factors for kidney infection in a bit.
Signs of a Kidney Infection
What does a kidney infection feel like? According to the NIDDK , the most common kidney infections symptoms are:
Pain in your back, side, or groin
But depending on a person’s age, they may not experience all of these kidney infection symptoms. Children younger than two may only experience high fever as a sign of kidney infections, the NIDDK says , and people older than 65 might only present with cognitive issues, like confusion, hallucinations, and disorganized speech.
When to See a Doctor
If you have signs of a kidney infection, you should see a doctor right away. Again, a kidney infection is serious—it can sometimes lead to a dangerous, life-threatening health condition called sepsis , the NIDDK says . (Signs of sepsis include fever, chills, fast breathing, a rapid heart rate, a rash, and confusion, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine .) Even if your infection doesn’t progress to that, a kidney infection can become chronic, i.e., long-lasting, and can cause permanent damage to your kidneys, the NIDDK says . Kaufman recommends heading to your local urgent care facility or emergency room if you have signs of a kidney infection.
How Is a Kidney Infection Diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, do a physical exam, and likely run some diagnostic tests. Those include a urinalysis, to check your pee under a microscope for bacteria and white blood cells, which your body makes to fight infection , and a urine culture to help find out what kind of bacteria is causing the infection, the NIDDK says . Your doctor may even take a blood sample to check for bacteria or other organisms in your blood, the Mayo Clinic says .
Other tests that might come up include an ultrasound, a CT scan, or a form of X-ray called a voiding cystourethrogram, which involves injecting a contrast dye to take X-rays of your bladder when it’s full and while you’re peeing, per the Mayo Clinic .
Kidney Infection Treatment
If you’re experiencing worrisome symptoms that make you think a UTI has progressed, your main question is probably how to treat a kidney infection. You absolutely can’t do it on your own. Any time you experience kidney infection pain or other symptoms like frequent urination, fever, and chills, don’t waste time in seeking medical attention.
Once they’ve diagnosed the kidney infection, doctors will put you on oral antibiotics or possibly even IV antibiotics, depending on how bad your case is, according to the NIDDK . They may also decide it makes the most sense for you to stay at a hospital to rest and recover.
After you’ve been given time to heal, your doctor will likely test your urine to see whether the infection has left your system. If it hasn’t, they may put you on another course of antibiotics (and maybe for a longer period this time around).
This is a lot of stress and pain to go through for something that, depending on your situation, could potentially have been caught earlier. To avoid all of this, whenever you think you have a UTI, see a doctor and get treated before it can progress into a kidney infection.
Risk Factors for a Kidney Infection
There are a few things that can up your risk factor of contracting a kidney infection, according to the Mayo Clinic , and some you have zero control over:
Having a vagina . The urethra, that small tube that carries urine out of your body, is shorter in people with vaginas than it is in people with penises . That makes it easier for bacteria to travel from outside your body into the bladder. Your urethra is also close to your vagina and anus, which opens you up to more chances that bacteria from one of those areas will get into your urinary tract.
Having something blocking your urinary tract. That can be anything that slows down the flow of urine or makes it hard for you to fully empty your bladder when you pee, like a kidney stone .
Having a weak immune system. Having an underlying medical condition like diabetes or HIV , or using medications that tamp down on your immune system, can increase your risk.
Other potential risk factors include having damage to the nerves around your bladder, using a urinary catheter for the first time, and having a condition like vesicoureteral reflux, which causes urine to flow the wrong way, the Mayo Clinic says .
Kidney Infection Complications
Kidney infections may not seem that serious if you’re familiar with your run-of-the-mill UTI , but they can lead to serious complications if left untreated. As we mentioned, kidney infections that don’t get treated can cause a condition known as sepsis. This happens when your body responds overzealously to an infection, which can trigger widespread bodily inflammation that ultimately leads to poor blood flow, according to the NIDDK . This can make your organs fail, which, in the most extreme cases, can lead to death. And even in non-life-threatening cases, if you have a kidney infection that becomes chronic, you can wind up with permanent kidney damage.
All of that sounds really scary, but here’s what’s most important to know: Kidney infections are treatable. It’s all about how soon you seek treatment once you start experiencing kidney infection symptoms.
How to Prevent a Kidney Infection
Preventing a kidney infection is really all about preventing urinary tract infections and getting prompt treatment if you ever get one. Sorry, but don’t rely on cranberry juice or supplements for this— the science is far too mixed to consider either of these a definitive UTI-prevention method. Instead, whenever you feel a bladder infection coming on, make it a habit to drink enough water every day to stay hydrated. That will ensure you’re peeing often enough to help flush out bacteria that could lead to an infection. The NIDDK recommends peeing as often as you get the urge, but definitely at least every three to four hours, since urine hanging out in your bladder for too long may help bacteria to grow, the organization says.
Kaufman also stresses the importance of “urinating like a fire hose” after sex . It might even be helpful to skip peeing before sex as long as that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, he says. This allows you to build up a forceful stream that may better help remove any bacteria that might have been pushed up there during sex.
Also, we referenced this above, but it’s important to reiterate: After you pee (or poop , for that matter), you should be sure to wipe from front to back, as wiping back to front can spread harmful bacteria from your rectum to your urethra, where it can cause an infection.
Above all, don’t try to self-treat a UTI. “You’ll just make it worse and put yourself at a greater risk of a kidney infection,” Kaufman says. If you have any bladder or kidney infection symptoms, that’s a clear sign it’s time to seek treatment.