Summary and overview
Your kidneys are part of your urinary system, which includes the bladder, urethra and ureters. For men, the prostate is also part of the urinary system. The urinary system eliminates the toxic materials in the body that are by-products of normal body functioning. And it reabsorbs vital substances such as electrolytes that can still be used by the body. When any part of the urinary system becomes infected, it is called a urinary tract infection (UTI). A kidney infection is an upper urinary tract infection.
Kidney infection or pyelonephritis is a serious infection that if not treated early could cause permanent damage to the kidney. Or it could spread to your blood stream and cause a life-threatening infection. A kidney infection requires immediate medical attention.
Kidney infection generally occurs when bacteria enters the body through the urethra and begins to multiply. The most common form is from the Escherichia coli (E. coli), which is part of the normal flora of our gastrointestinal tract. While E. coli is perfectly safe in our gut or bowels, when it infects other organs, it is seen as a foreign body that can cause infection and serious diseases. A new strain of antibiotic-resistant E. coli may be the cause of increasingly hard-to-treat UTIs in women.
Kidney infections often begin outside the kidney. They can begin as lower urinary tract infections – i.e. in the urethra, the bladder, and, in men, the prostate gland – and spread upwards to the kidney. Kidney infections are more likely when the immune system is weak. They can have many causes: anything that causes bacteria to travel up the urethra to the bladder and then to the kidneys. Sometimes this can be as simple as the regular bacteria present in the anus travelling to the vagina (e.g. through wiping after using the restroom or sexual intercourse) and then getting into the urethra and making its way to the kidneys to cause an infection. Women are a greater risk of kidney infection than men because a woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s, so bacteria have less distance to travel from outside the body to the bladder.
Persons with kidney infection usually suffer from a high fever with a temperature of over 38oC. The patient may also feel body chill, nausea and vomiting. The most definitive sign, however, of a kidney infection is lower back pain. The dramatically named “kidney punch” is a kidney infection test where slight pressure is exerted on the lower back where the kidneys are located. Patients who are affected with kidney infection will feel back pain, which can be intolerable.
Other symptoms include:
- Burning sensation on urinating.
- Dark cloudy urine with a strong smell.
- Persistent and frequent urge to urinate.
- Pus (white blood cells) or blood in the urine.
A kidney infection is a serious medical condition and when not treated promptly it can cause kidney abscess, kidney inflammation, sepsis or even acute renal failure.
Your doctor will likely give you a physical examination and ask you about your symptoms and how long they have persisted. If he or she thinks that you have a kidney infection, they will most likely recommend urine analysis or urinalysis. Your urine will be analyzed to determine whether bacteria, blood or pus (white blood cells) are present.
The first line of treatment for a kidney infection are antibiotics. Trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra)], quinolones [ciprofloxacin (Cipro, Cipro XR, Proquin XR), levofloxacin (Levaquin)], cephalosporins, newer generation penicillins, and nitrofurantoin (Macrodantin, Furadantin, Macrobid) are all possibilities depending on the type of bacteria that have infected the kidney.
Patients who are pregnant, diabetic, dehydrated, or not responding to treatment should be treated in the hospital.
It’s important to drink lots of water during and after treatment to cleanse the kidneys and the bladder. It is also believed the herb uva ursi (also known as the bearberry) can be helpful due to its active component, arbutin, being broken down and excreted in the kidneys. Arbutin has antiseptic properties, killing the bacteria causing the kidney infection. However it should be noted that studies have also found Arbutin causes cancer, so proceed with caution and more research in considering this choice.
Kidney infections aren’t particularly common. About 1 out of 7,000 people develop them each year in the United States. But there are a number of things that you can do to cut down your chances.
- Stay well hydrated. This will help flush out any toxins from your kidneys.
- Drink pure cranberry juice at least once per week. Cranberry juice is known to acidify urine, which prevents bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder.
- Women who use a diaphragm for birth control should ensure it fits properly and don’t leave it in too long.
- Women should make sure that they wipe from front to back after emptying the bladder. This will help prevent bacteria around the anus from getting into the urethra and ultimately the bladder.
- It may be beneficial to eat yogurt that contains helpful bacteria called lactobacilli. These bacteria may help in preventing an infection.
- Women should wear cotton panties or at least those with a cotton crotch, which allows moisture to escape. Other materials can trap moisture and create a potential breeding ground for bacteria.
Kidney infection is a relatively rare and easily treatable condition. It is caused by bacteria which infect the kidney from the urethra. The type of bacteria will determine the necessary medication but in general, the first line of treatment for kidney infection are antibiotics. Natural treatments such as the herb Uva Ursi have also shown to be effective, especially in the early stages of infection. If you are taking any natural substances, it is important that you inform your doctor to prevent drug interactions. Lastly, never underestimate using natural measures to prevent kidney infection to begin with, like eating the right kinds of yogurt and drinking cranberry juice.