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Kidney Infection: What Are Its Symptoms and Causes?

kidney infection

Story at-a-glance -

  • A kidney infection begins as a urinary tract infection (UTI), but once disease-causing bacteria travel to your kidneys, symptoms can develop. The infection can cause pain and affect people of any age, including pregnant women and children
  • In order to confirm a kidney infection, urine is checked for pathogens that may have caused the disease
  • Foods like cranberries, blueberries and asparagus, on top of a nutrient-rich diet, may help alleviate kidney infection symptoms

The kidneys play a big role in segregating waste and fluids from your body and making sure they’re released.1 However, some factors make people more susceptible to urinary tract infections (UTI), which cause around 10 million health care visits annually.2 About 1 in every 30 cases of a UTI may progress into a kidney infection,3 which may target the organs severely and negatively impact quality of life.  

What Is a Kidney Infection?

A kidney infection or pyelonephritis is a UTI that affects one or both kidneys. You can get a kidney infection when Escherichia coli (E.coli) bacteria enter your urethra, pass through your urinary tract, increase in number and move up to the kidneys.4 Other rare but possible kidney infection causes include:5

Kidney surgery (with the infection occurring after the procedure)

An infected artificial joint or heart valve

An infection that enters through the skin, moves through the bloodstream and affects your kidney6

What Causes a Kidney Infection? Take Note of These 6 Risk Factors

Some factors can make you or someone you know more susceptible to this infection:7

Being female — Kidney infection symptoms develop more frequently among women because their urethra is shorter and is nearer the vagina and the anus. This causes bacteria to easily enter the body and move into the urinary tract and the kidneys.

Urinary tract blockage — Examples include kidney stones, enlarged prostate gland in men or abnormalities like a pinched urethra,8 which all slow down urine flow or weaken your ability to fully empty the bladder.

Urinary catheter use — Bacteria responsible for the condition can pass through the catheter and infect the kidneys.9

Nerve or spinal cord damage around the bladder — These conditions may prevent you from noticing indicators of a bladder infection.

Weakened or immunocompromised systems — HIV, Type 2 diabetes10 or drugs used to prevent transplanted organ rejection may cause immune system problems and increase infection risk.

Vesicoureteral reflux — This is a condition wherein small quantities of urine move from the bladder back up into the ureters and kidneys. People with it are more likely to have a kidney infection during childhood and adulthood.

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Common Symptoms of a Kidney Infection in Men and Women

There are multiple signs of a kidney infection you need to look out for:11,12,13

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Pain in the back, side (flank), abdomen, lower belly or groin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Upset stomach
  • Urine that’s cloudy or foul-smelling, or contains pus or blood cells (hematuria)14
  • Diarrhea
  • Burning sensation or pain while urinating
  • Increased urge to urinate or increased instances of urination
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • High fever (100.4 degrees F or above)

Kidney Infection Versus Urinary Tract Infection (UTI): Learn the Difference

While a kidney infection and UTI exhibit similar symptoms and risk factors, they’re not the same. If you’ve been diagnosed with a kidney infection, you have a UTI. But if you have a UTI, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have a kidney infection.

A UTI can be classified into three types: pyelonephritis (kidney infection), cystitis (bladder infection) or urethritis (infection of the urethra).15 A kidney infection is a UTI that’s considered more severe because it has traveled upward to the kidneys and ureters.16

What Does It Mean if You Have a Kidney Infection During Your Pregnancy?

Bladder infections, which may evolve into a kidney infection, can happen during a pregnancy because:17

The growing baby may cause kidney enlargement, increase pressure on the ureters and slow down urine flow. The bladder may also fail to empty properly, which can lead to an infection.18

Urine tends to have more sugars, protein and hormones and be less acidic, all of which may increase UTI risk.19 Some hormones may cause urinary tract changes and make you more susceptible to infections.20

Kidney infection symptoms that are common while pregnant include acute cystitis (a bladder or lower urinary tract infection)21 and back pain. If left unaddressed, a kidney infection may worsen and lead to adult respiratory distress syndrome, preterm labor22 or a baby with low birth weight.23

Tests to detect a kidney infection are done during the first prenatal visit, or all throughout a pregnancy. Doctors examine a pregnant woman’s complete medical history and conduct a physical examination if there are signs of a UTI or other infection.24

Kidney Infections in Children

Some of the causes linked to kidney infection in children include:25

Dehydration

Holding urine for long periods of time

Failure to thoroughly clean and dry the genital areas — Doing so may raise the risk for bacteria growth

Chemicals present in bubble baths — Some children are sensitive to them, and they can enter the urinary tract and cause an infection

Wearing tight pants or underwear — This causes moisture buildup in the genital area and triggers bacteria growth

Wiping the genitals from back to front — A more common scenario in young girls, this causes bacteria from the rectum to move to the urethra

It’s possible that some kids won’t show clear signs of a kidney infection. The U.K.’s NHS notes that some children 2 years old and younger with an infection may only have a high temperature.26 While it’s not unusual for a female child to have a UTI just once, further testing is needed if a girl has recurring infections, or if a boy develops it for the first time.27

What Are the Side Effects of a Kidney Infection?

If left unaddressed, a kidney infection may cause complications like:28

Kidney scarring29

Blood poisoning or septicemia or sepsis30

Recurring kidney infections31

Complications can occur among people with a structural problem in the urinary tract, kidney disease caused by other causes and more frequent episodes of kidney infection.32 Seek medical attention immediately if you notice common kidney infection symptoms like bloody urine, nausea and vomiting.33 While kidney infections may be addressed using home remedies, if your condition is severe you’ll be admitted to a hospital.34

How to Diagnose a Kidney Infection

A kidney infection diagnosis mainly involves examining a urine sample for traces of bacteria, blood or pus. A blood sample may also be needed for a culture to see if there are bacteria or other organisms in it.35 Your doctor may also ask you to take any of these kidney infection tests:36

Ultrasound or CT scan — This checks for a blockage in the urinary tract.

Voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG) — A contrast dye is injected so your doctor can see images of your bladder when it’s full and while you’re urinating, and look for problems in the said area and in your urethra.

Digital rectal exam — A method usually recommended for men to check for a swollen prostate, this involves the doctor inserting a lubed finger into the anus.

Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) scintigraphy — A radioactive material is injected into the veins and travels to the kidneys.37 This may help check for a kidney infection and possible damage.

How to Treat a Kidney Infection?

Most doctors would recommend antibiotics like ciprofloxacin, co-amoxiclav or trimethoprim38 to help treat kidney infections. I advise against these conventional kidney infection treatments, as they were proven to cause adverse effects like diarrhea, feelings of illness, nausea and headaches.39,40,41

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs like ibuprofen shouldn’t be taken for kidney infections either. Multiple studies have linked these drugs to fluid retention, hyperkalemia,42 kidney failure and even acute kidney injury,43 which could induce a rapid progression of chronic kidney disease.44,45

4 Home Remedies for a Kidney Infection

To help address symptoms, you can try these natural remedies for a kidney infection:

Apple cider vinegarWhile there’s little research indicating that apple cider vinegar may be useful for a kidney infection, this may be helpful for UTIs when taken orally. ACV is known to combat the bacteria causing the infection.46

Heated pads — If your kidney infection is causing back, abdomen or side pain, place heated pads on the affected area to alleviate it.

High-quality filtered water — Drinking high-quality filtered water may help the body eliminate infection-causing bacteria.47

Raw vegetable juices — Juice made from organically grown, GMO-free vegetables like carrots, cucumber, celery and spinach assists in alkalinizing the blood and provides your body with a defense against UTIs, and possibly kidney infections.48

These essential oils can be used to address kidney infections or UTIs too:49

  • Cedarwood50,51
  • Eucalyptus dives52
  • Clove53
  • Coriander54
  • Celery seed 55
  • Sage56
  • Myrrh57
  • Thyme linalool58

Talk to your doctor and take a skin patch test before utilizing essential oils to prevent allergic reactions or other side effects. Dilute your chosen oil into a carrier oil like coconut, sweet almond, olive or jojoba so it’s gentler on your skin. On top of all of these remedies, get plenty of rest and try to wait for at least two weeks before returning to work.59

6 Ways on How to Prevent a Kidney Infection

If you want to get rid of a kidney infection, you should inhibit UTIs first by following these measures:60

Drink enough high-quality water to help the body eliminate infection-causing bacteria.

Urinate when you feel the urge. Delaying urination has been linked to a higher UTI risk.61

Urinate after sexual intercourse to flush out bacteria from the urethra.

Carefully wipe genitals to aid in stopping the spread of bacteria to the urethra.

Refrain from using feminine products, deodorant sprays or douches as they can be irritating on the genitals and cause bacteria growth.62

Avoid spermicide-containing condoms or diaphragms as they may also cause bacteria growth.63

The Ideal Diet for a Kidney Infection Patient

If you have a kidney infection, following a healthy diet can help you mitigate symptoms and improve your condition. Ideally, increase your intake of fresh, organically grown and GMO-free fruits and vegetables, and healthy omega-3 fats, and add moderate amounts of high-quality grass fed meats. Consider adding these foods that are good for people with kidney infections or UTIs:64

CranberriesA 2007 Molecular Nutrition & Food Research article noted that cranberry products fared better than a placebo or control in decreasing the frequency of symptomatic UTIs within a year.65 Fresh cranberries are the most ideal option, and they should be consumed moderately at least two hours before or after meals.66

Fructose is found in cranberries, and once it’s consumed excessively, increases your risk for health problems. Avoid dried fruits or juices, as they often contain harmful added sugars.67

Blueberries — Together with cranberries, they assist in fighting or inhibiting bacteria growth because of their antioxidant compounds.68

Asparagus — This is said to be useful in alleviating pain and swelling caused by UTIs.69 Like cranberries, consume asparagus in moderation because it has high purine levels. Excessive consumption of purine-rich foods may predispose you to some health problems.

High-quality probiotics and probiotic-rich foods — Probiotics have been heralded for their ability to promote a healthy urinary tract and help fight bacteria in it.70

Lastly, refrain from drinking coffee and alcohol unless the infection is healed, since they can irritate your bladder71 and make it more difficult for you to urinate.72

Address Symptoms of a Kidney Infection With Holistic Remedies Before It’s Too Late

Because of a kidney infection’s tendency to affect anyone and cause immense pain, it’s wise to implement measures that’ll alleviate the indicators once they appear, or follow steps to reduce your risk for an infection beforehand. Lowering your chances of a kidney infection starts by making well-informed health decisions. Hopefully this guide has given you much to ponder on regarding the most effective way to combat this disease.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Kidney Infection

Q: What does a kidney infection feel like?

A: According to the U.K.’s NHS, if you have a kidney infection, you’ll feel sick and feverish, and notice pain on your back or side. If you also have a UTI in addition to a kidney infection, you may also feel burning upon urinating, or notice blood or a cloudiness in your urine.73

Q: How do you know if you have a kidney infection?

A: Some of the early signs of a kidney infection include nausea and vomiting, fever, upset stomach and lack of appetite.74,75,76

Q: Is a kidney infection contagious?

A: Kidney infections, which often affect parts of the bladder in the urinary tract, are not known to be contagious.77

Q: How serious is a kidney infection if you are pregnant?

A: Unaddressed kidney infections among pregnant women may cause adult respiratory distress syndrome or preterm labor.78 Some women may deliver babies with low birth weight too.79

Q: Can you die from a kidney infection?

A: There’s not enough evidence linking a kidney infection to death, but its complications may be life-threatening. For instance, blood poisoning (also called septicemia or sepsis)80 may cause tissue damage, organ failure or death.81

Q: How do you check for a kidney infection?

A: Urine samples are one way to tell if you have a kidney infection. Blood samples, an ultrasound or CT scan or voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG) may be carried out, too, if needed.82,83

Q: Can kidney infections go away on their own?

A: There is very little evidence suggesting that kidney infections can go away on their own without treatment. If possible, stay on the safe side and utilize home remedies if you have a kidney infection or if you are prone to coming down with UTIs or kidney infections.

Q: How long does it take for a kidney infection to go away?

A: Kidney infection symptoms may go away within a few days, but usually when treated with antibiotics.84 However, because antibiotics may trigger adverse effects, home remedies like apple cider vinegar and raw vegetable juice85 may be plausible options.

Q: What should you do to prevent a kidney infection?

A: There are multiple steps you can do to lower your kidney infection risk, such as drinking enough high-quality filtered water, resting often and properly cleaning and caring for your genitals.86,87

+ Sources and References