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.