Let’s be real, getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), which brings about the constant urge to pee and burning pain when you finally do, is the worst. While those two symptoms alone might be unpleasant enough, UTIs also have the potential to spread to your kidney (or both kidneys). 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 kidney infection symptoms, underlying causes, and why it’s so important to get treatment as soon as you can.
What is a kidney infection?
Kidney infections are technically a type of UTIs, since kidneys are part of your upper urinary tract, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). They are caused by bacteria called Escherichia coli (E. coli) that is usually found in the large intestine, but it wreaks havoc when it finds itself in the urinary tract.
How does it get there, you ask? Well, typically the bacteria make its way into the kidneys through the ureters, which is the tube that connects the bladder to the kidneys.
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.”
What causes a kidney infection?
Kidney infections start out in the bladder as a lower urinary tract infection, says Dr. Bellows. . Hence, why 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. More rarely, you can get a kidney infection if bacteria enters your blood during surgery and gets to your kidneys.
The good news is that there are ways to stop kidney infections in their tracks. After all, it’s not like they come out of nowhere. Kidney infections can flourish when women try to write off the symptoms of a bladder infection, like a frequent need to urinate, only being able to pee a little each time, and burning pee. They can also happen if people try to cure their bladder infections with home remedies, like drinking cranberry juice. “Cranberry juice is not a treatment for a urinary tract infection,” Dr. Kaufman says.
In either case, not treating a bladder infection quickly enough gives it a chance to turn into a kidney infection.
Here are the seven signs of kidney infection that you shouldn’t ignore.
So, what does a kidney infection feel like? According to the NIDDK, the most common kidney infections symptoms are:
- Cloudy, dark, bloody, or foul-smelling pee
- Frequent and painful urination
- 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 2 may only experience high fever as a sign of kidney infections, and people older than 65 might only present with cognitive issues, like confusion, hallucinations, and disorganized speech.
How do you treat a kidney infection?
If you’re experiencing worrisome symptoms that make you think a bladder infection 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 seeking medical attention.
Dr. Kaufman recommends heading to your local urgent care facility or emergency room. There, 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 bladder infection, see a doctor and get treated before it can progress into a kidney infection.
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. 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 can you 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. Instead of chugging cranberry juice 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 pee hanging out in your bladder for too long can help bacteria to grow.
Dr. 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, after you pee (or poop, for that matter), you should be sure to wipe 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,” Dr. Kaufman says. If you have any bladder or kidney infection symptoms, that’s a clear sign it’s time to seek treatment.