When it comes to urinary tract infections, clearing them up is typically simple and requires very little effort. Simply visiting a doctor and getting a prescription for a short round of antibiotics will do the trick. However, there are times when it gets complicated, especially when the infection reaches the kidneys. A kidney infection, also known as pyelonephritis, is far more dangerous than a simple bladder infection, since the kidneys are important for more than just urinary function.
What leads to a kidney infection?
When bacteria enter the urinary tract, typically through the urethral opening, it can lead to proliferation of the bacteria, which causes an infection. There are four parts of the urinary tract – the urethra, the bladder, the ureters, and the kidneys – and a UTI can settle in any part of the system. Most commonly, the bacteria latch on and spread in the bladder. However, if left untreated, it’s easy for that bacterial overgrowth to back up into the kidneys, leading to a kidney infection or pyelonephritis.
Symptoms of a kidney infection
All of the symptoms of a UTI also apply to a kidney infection, but there are also others, most of which are more problematic:
- High fever and chills
- Pain in the abdomen, flank, back, and groin that can be unmanageable
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pus and blood in the urine (hematuria)
Risk factors for pyelonephritis
As with most ailments, there are things that are more likely to create a risk factor for certain people. One of the biggest risk factors for a kidney infection is being female, since this is the biggest risk factor in getting a UTI to start with. That’s because female anatomy makes it far easier for bacteria to reach the bladder and, therefore, the kidneys.
Other factors that weigh in on how easily a person may develop a kidney infection include:
- Having a blockage in the urinary tract, which can lead to urine being left in the bladder or even flowing back into the kidney.
- Having a weakened immune system, which means that the body doesn’t have the ability to fight off excess bacteria naturally.
- Having damage in nerves located around the bladder, which can reduce sensation so that the patient isn’t aware immediately when they need to urinate, leading to the growth of excess bacteria, as well as the lack of sensation of pain when a kidney infections develops.
- Having a condition that causes urine to flow the wrong direction, such as vesicoureteral reflux, which allows the flow of urine back into the kidneys from the bladder on a regular basis.
- Using a catheter for any extended period of time.
Complications and permanent damage
If a kidney infection is left untreated, there can be a number of complications, including permanent damage to the kidneys that compromises their functionality permanently. One of the initial problems a patient could face is scarring of the kidneys, which can lead to problems such as high blood pressure (since the kidneys control blood pressure), chronic kidney disease, and kidney failure.
In addition, the patient could experience septicemia, or blood poisoning, since the kidneys are unable to properly filter waste from the bloodstream. Eventually, this blood poisoning can cause sepsis, in which the bacteria from the kidney infection spreads through the blood to other organs, causing some of them to shut down. This could eventually be fatal.
Women who are pregnant and develop a kidney infection also face a greater risk, with a high potential for delivering a child with a very low birth weight.
How to prevent a kidney infection
Preventing pyelonephritis starts with preventing a UTI. There are several things that can be done to accomplish this:
- Stay hydrated. Drinking more water especially can keep bacteria from settling into the urinary tract, helping to maintain the flow of urine out of the body.
- Don’t hold your pee. As soon as the urge hits, it’s important to go so that you don’t desensitize the body or allow urine to sit in the bladder too long.
- Make sure to empty the bladder completely before leaving the restroom.
- Urinate right after intercourse to rinse away any bacteria that may have entered the urethra during contact.
- Avoid feminine products, such as deodorants, douches, and bubble baths, all of which can irritate the body as well as change the balance of bacteria in the system.
- Wipe from front to back to avoid spreading the bacteria E. coli (found in feces) to the urethra. This bacterium is the most common cause of a UTI.
- See a doctor immediately upon experiencing any symptoms of a UTI so that medication can be prescribed and the UTI treated prior to the spread of bacteria into the kidneys.
- Use good hygiene habits, and don’t wear tight fitting clothes or underwear without a cotton liner.
Having a UTI is bad enough; allowing it to get complicated and turn into a kidney infection by refusing to see a doctor can only make things worse, both immediately and in the future. It seems like UTIs are common and will pass on their own, but that’s not the case. Leaving it untreated makes things much more difficult and suffering from a kidney infection is not only much more painful but much more difficult on the body, eventually leading to permanent damage to the kidneys.
Since the kidneys control waste management, urine production, water removal, temperature maintenance, and blood pressure, it’s important to keep these organs functioning healthily, which they can’t do if they are riddled with bacteria and infection. Getting this cleared up before ending up in the hospital is crucial to saving the kidneys and overall health.