Here’s why they occur, and when to take action.
When you get a urinary tract infection, you might think the constant urge to pee and burning pain when you finally do are the worst of it. But did you know there’s a chance of a UTI spreading to your kidney (or both kidneys)? 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. Here’s what you need to know about what causes kidney infections, symptoms to look out for, and why it’s so important to get treatment as soon as you can.
If you’re wondering about kidney infection causes, there’s one especially common culprit to keep in mind.
“Kidney infections are caused by bacteria that start out in the bladder as a lower urinary tract infection,” Fara Bellows, M.D., a urologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. 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. Kidney infections are still technically UTIs, since kidneys are part of your upper urinary tract, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). More rarely, you can get a kidney infection if bacteria enters your blood during surgery and gets to your kidneys.
Kidney infections are “one of the most common urologic conditions that we see in a general urology practice,” Dr. Bellows says. 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.”
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 (no, this won’t work). “Cranberry juice is not a treatment for a urinary tract infection,” Dr. Kaufman says. “It has value as a preventative to acidify your urine, but what do people think, that the bacteria doesn’t like cranberries and will just go away?”
In either case, not treating a bladder infection quickly enough gives it a chance to turn into a kidney infection.
There are seven kidney infection symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.
So, what does a kidney infection feel like? According to the NIDDK, the most common symptoms of kidney infections 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.
Can you die from a kidney infection?
If you see a doctor and they put you on a course of antibiotics, your kidney infection symptoms should abate and you should be all clear. But on the off chance that a kidney infection is allowed to progress without treatment, it actually can lead to death.
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.
If you think you have a kidney infection, it’s essential to see a doctor ASAP.
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 symptoms like back pain, 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.
You can also lower your risk of developing a bladder or kidney infection in the first place.
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 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.