Urinary tract infections are usually more of a painful annoyance than a threat to an individual’s health. They occur when bacteria (E. coli 90 percent of the time) get into the urinary tract via the urethra. From there the bacteria can spread into the bladder, the ureters, and the kidneys. If the infection is caught early, which it usually is, then it is easily taken care of with a short three to seven-day regime of antibiotics.
If a urinary tract infection (UTI) goes untreated it may spread and wreak havoc on the urinary tract. Eventually, it will make its way to the kidneys and become detrimental to a person’s health.
To stop a UTI before it reaches critical stages in the kidneys, watch out for the signs a patient may have an infection.
- Mild or severe burning during urination
- Frequent need to go to the bathroom
- Dark, white, cloudy, or red urine with a foul scent
- Less urine output or the inability to empty the bladder
- Pain in the abdomen or lower back
- Slight fever
Begin treating the infection during this stage and it won’t have a chance to reach the kidneys.
What happens if the UTI reaches the kidneys?
There is still a chance that the urinary tract infection can be wiped out by antibiotics even after it reaches the kidneys. However, the treatment may now be for 14 days rather than seven, and if patients have a high temperature or are too dehydrated, then a hospital stay may be necessary. If so, the antibiotics will be given intravenously along with the fluid needed to replenish the body.
When bacteria are allowed to reach the kidneys, it can cause permanent damage. Damage to the kidneys may result in reduced kidney function, or complete kidney failure. The latter occurs more often if patients already have some type of kidney problem. From the kidneys, the infection can spread to the bloodstream and this may be life threatening.
Pyelonephritis is a chronic infection of the kidneys. It causes a painful swelling of the kidneys and can deposit bacteria into the bloodstream. During this stage there will be blood in the urine, little urine leaving the body, and low blood pressure.
After pyelonephritis, the patient can develop urosepsis. This occurs when the UTI spreads its bacteria into the bloodstream and affects other parts of the body. This condition is serious.
Its symptoms include:
- Pain in the kidney area
- Fatigue that is extreme
- Less urine, or possibly none
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing (lung involvement)
- Mental confusion
- Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat
- A weakened pulse
- High fever
Diagnosis and treatment of complications of a UTI
For a simple UTI, the doctor will order a urinalysis and a culture test in the lab. These will show if there is a UTI and what bacteria is causing it. But, if the symptoms show there may be a complication such as urosepsis he will add other tests. These may include blood tests and cultures, a chest x-ray to check for lung involvement, a CT of the abdomen and kidneys, and an ultrasound to check out the health of the urinary tract. He may search the patient’s skin for signs of a visible rash or ulcerations caused by the sepsis.
Antibiotics are a must to destroy bacteria, but they may not be enough. The body sometimes requires a more aggressive treatment. It may need extra oxygen. The doctor may order vasopressors to constrict blood vessels and cause an increase in blood pressure. This treatment is meant to keep the organs working properly and reduce the chances of them shutting down. In the worst cases, surgery could become necessary to get rid of the infection source quickly.
Preventing complications of untreated UTIs
Not everyone can avoid having a UTI. They are very common, especially in women. Fifty percent of women have suffered from one, sometimes several. Yet, complications can be avoided in most cases if you recognize the symptoms of a UTI and treat it properly. Visit a doctor at the first sign of a problem. Follow his directions when it comes to taking the antibiotics. Don’t stop treatment simply because symptoms have disappeared. Drink plenty of fluids to help the body flush out the bacteria.
However, the best way to avoid complications is to do your best to avoid infections.
There are simple habits you can adopt in order to lessen the risk of a UTI.
- Stay hydrated. Drink lots of water to flush out bacteria
- Stay clean. Wash daily, and before and after sex. Wear clean, dry, cotton underwear.
- Wipe from front to back to avoid getting E. coli into the urethra
- Empty the bladder completely as often as possible
- Urinate after sex
- Get frequent screenings for STIs
- Make sure the doctor is aware of underlying issues (HIV, pregnancy, multiple sclerosis, genetic issues). He may prescribe preventative antibiotic treatment.
An untreated urinary tract infection has the ability to resolve itself in the early stages. However, it is always best to seek a doctor’s advice. There is always a small possibility that what you have is not a UTI, but a condition that mimics the symptoms. A urinalysis will tell a patient whether it truly is a UTI or something else.