It could be argued that kidney stones and urinary tract infections are equally painful, or at least equally irritating, but the answer isn’t clear, since different people process pain differently. It also makes a difference how severe a UTI is or how large or resistant to treatment a kidney stone may be.
However, one thing is certain. Suffering from either a kidney stone or a urinary tract infection can be debilitating at worst, leading to hospitalization, and annoying at best, so that it’s difficult to concentrate and function normally.
What is a urinary tract infection (UTI)?
A UTI, or urinary tract infection, occurs when bacteria get into the urinary tract and begin to grow and spread, causing an infection. Most UTIs are caused by bacteria entering the urethra. Often, this is E. Coli that spreads from the anus. Though E. Coli is thought to be responsible for up to 90 percent of all UTIs, other bacteria can induce urinary tract infections as well.
Commonly, the bacteria travel up through the urethra, and the infection likely occurs here or in the bladder. However, in some cases, the infection reaches the ureters or the kidneys, which can cause additional complications. There are other causes of UTIs as well, including anything that could be blocking the flow of urine and causing it to build up and stay in the bladder.
Since urinary tract infections are incredibly common, you are probably familiar with the symptoms. Just in case you're not, here's a refresher:
- Needing to urinate more often than usual
- Not being able to empty the bladder, or only producing small amounts of urine, even when you feel the strong urge to go
- Discomfort or pain when peeing, which can also include a burning sensation
- Feelings of fatigue and general unwellness, and fever is also possible
- Urine may smell odd or look cloudy
- Older people who develop urinary tract infections can become severely confused and disoriented, mimicking the symptoms of dementia
What is a kidney stone?
Kidney stones, also called nephrolithiasis or renal lithiasis, are deposits in the kidneys that are made up of minerals and salts. These deposits harden and crystalize, settling in various parts of the urinary tract, and while they are called kidney stones, they can affect any part of the urinary tract, including the ureters, bladder, and urethra.
Stones can form from a number of different materials, but the most common is excess calcium in the urine. In many cases, calcium oxalate or calcium phosphate stones are small and easier to pass or at least break up with treatment. Struvite stones are formed in response to an infection and can be much larger. Uric acid stones often form in people who are chronically dehydrated, and cystine stones are a hereditary concern, involving the overproduction of amino acids, which the kidneys can’t excrete in those quantities.
Symptoms of kidney stones will include pain (usually on one side, and for men in the testicles as well), fever, blood in the urine, excessive sweating, and feeling nauseous (which can include vomiting).
Who gets UTIs?
Anyone can get a UTI, but some people are at greater risk of developing a urinary tract infection, including:
- Women. The urethra is shorter in women, so it’s quicker for bacteria to travel up into the system. Also, the female urethra is closer than the male urethra to the areas carrying bacteria that often cause infections, namely the vagina and the anus. Women who are post menopause are at even higher risk due to a shifting of organs that causes bladder or uterine prolapse and hormonal changes.
- Those with any obstructions within the urinary tract.
- Anyone using catheters.
- People with diabetes or other chronic diseases that compromise the immune system in any way.
Who gets kidney stones?
As with UTIs, anyone can develop one or more kidney stones. However, some are more predisposed to kidney stones than others. Some of the risk factors for kidney stones are:
- History. If the patient or their family has a history of kidney stones, the patient is more likely to develop kidney stones again or as well.
- Dehydration. The concentration of sediment in urine is much higher when someone is dehydrated, making it much more likely that kidney stones will form.
- Diet. Those people who are on a high protein diet or consume large amounts of salt or sugar are more apt to have kidney stones, since this can increase the amount of calcium in the kidneys.
- Digestive problems or gastric surgery. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastric bypass surgery, and chronic diarrhea all compromise the body’s ability to absorb both calcium and water, both of which will lead to a higher possibility of kidney stones.
- Obesity. Science has linked high body mass index (BMI) to an increase in risk for kidney stones.
Do kidney stones cause UTIs?
With similar symptoms in conditions, and the likelihood of suffering both at the same time, the question arises as to whether or not kidney stones cause UTIs. The answer is, yes, kidney stones can definitely cause someone to get a UTI, since they can represent a physical blockage that makes it more difficult to empty the bladder.
However, someone who has a UTI may also be causing the body to produce a kidney stone. When a patient gets a urinary tract infection, there is often excess urine sitting stagnant in the bladder, and it could even be in the kidneys, due to the swelling caused by the infection. This means that there is likely sediment buildup in both the kidneys and the bladder that is not being properly flushed out, and this can crystallize into kidney stones.
Preventing UTIs and kidney stones
Of course, even when every precaution is taken, someone may still develop a UTI or kidney stone, but there are plenty of ways to decrease the likelihood. Here are some of the best ways to reduce the risk of suffering from a urinary tract infection or kidney stone.
- Drink plenty of fluid, especially water. Remaining hydrated assures the kidneys can produce sufficient urine to dilute sediment, reducing the risk of developing a kidney stone. Fluid helps flush out bacteria from the urinary tract, so they don't have as much of a chance to proliferate. Six or more eight-ounce glasses of water a day are recommended for optimal hydration.
- Wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria that lead to UTIs from the vagina and anus to the urethra.
- Avoid diets high in sugar. Sugar can irritate the urinary tract, making it more susceptible to bacterial growth, and it can cause excess calcium to settle in the kidneys that form stones.
- Clean before and after sex and urinate as soon as possible after sex. This reduces the transfer of bacteria from skin to urethra and helps rinse out the urethra.
Most people can pass a kidney stone with little more than pain medication, though there are times that a visit to the hospital for treatment or even surgery may be necessary. With a UTI, it’s best to see a doctor to get a prescription for antibiotics and avoid the complications of a kidney infection. However, there are also occasions that these infections also lead to hospital stays, especially if it becomes a kidney infection.