A Complete Guide To Kidney Infections, Including Ways To Prevent Them

Kidney infections occur when bacteria spreads to the organ and causes inflammation that requires immediate medical attention. The bacteria most often travels through the urethra, but it can also come from other parts of the body and be carried through the bloodstream. Read on to learn more about this common ailment and ways to help prevent it.

Causes: Hygiene And/Or Weakened Immune System

blowing-nose
Susann Prautsch/picture alliance via Getty Images
Susann Prautsch/picture alliance via Getty Images

As with many infections, hygiene and immune system health play a significant role in the likelihood of contracting a kidney infection. Being sure that you exercise proper hygiene in the restroom can help prevent bacteria from getting into the urethra and causing an infection.

A weakened immune system can make it more challenging to fight off infection. This gives the bacteria a greater window of opportunity to get into and travel throughout the body and to the kidneys.

Causes: Physiology

urinary-tract-diagram
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Since kidney infections commonly result from bacteria entering the urethra, there are physiological risk factors. One is having a female anatomy, in which case the urethra is much shorter and therefore bacteria has less distance to travel.

Another risk factor is related to men, however, as those with an enlarged prostate have a higher chance of developing an infection. That’s because the gland can cause urinary tract blockage, making it more possible for bacteria to travel up before being flushed out.

Causes: Medical Complications

kidney-stone
BSIP/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Various medical conditions can put someone at higher risk of developing a kidney infection. For instance, kidney stones are a risk factor as they result from a buildup of dissolved minerals on the lining of the organ, which can block the flow of urine.

Another risk factor is having damaged nerves, which can numb symptoms of a bladder infection that then progresses to the kidneys. Catheters can also increase the risk, as can vesicoureteral reflux, a condition where small amounts of urine flow the wrong way.

Symptoms: Swelling

Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As a kidney infection progresses, the organ may become incapable of properly releasing waste through urine. As a result, minerals build up in the body along with water.

The excess salt and liquid can create swelling in various parts of the body, including hands and feet. The medical term for this symptom is edema, which describes puffiness that’s specifically related to fluid becoming trapped in the body’s tissues. It can also cause swelling in the face.

Symptoms: Atypical Urination

abdominal-pain
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One early sign of a kidney infection is the persistent need to urinate. Since kidneys are responsible for making urine, any disturbance with the organ can cause a change in urine frequency and consistency.

Color and small changes may also be an indication that something is going on with the kidneys. Likewise, there may also be pressure or discomfort that the affected individual feels while urinating. These symptoms can also be present when the infection is still in the bladder, so the earlier the intervention the better.

Symptoms: Rashes

scratching
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

One of the symptoms that don’t seem obviously related to kidney infections are rashes. Skin irritations are often thought to have an exterior cause, such as coming into contact with an allergen.

However, it can also be a sign that something is wrong with the kidneys. That’s because kidney infections may result in a build-up of waste in the body. This can cause irritation in the skin, leading to excessive scratching and potentially creating a rash.

Symptoms: Smelly Breath

Jeremy Dorrough/Unsplash
Jeremy Dorrough/Unsplash

Kidney infections can cause the body to urinate more frequently, leading to dehydration that allows bad breath-causing bacteria to grow in the mouth. The infection can also be related to nausea and vomiting, which can be the culprit behind bad breath.

Taking antibiotics to cure a kidney infection can also lead to bad breath since they can throw off the balance of bacteria in the gut. Antibiotics can also leave a metallic taste in the mouth, making it more difficult to discern if you have bad breath.

Symptoms: Dizziness

Marcel Strauss/Unsplash
Marcel Strauss/Unsplash

Kidney infections can lead to various symptoms that may cause dizziness. The combination of fatigue and dehydration can give way to lightheadedness. Another possible culprit could be lack of appetite due to nausea related to the infection itself or to treatment.

Kidney infections can also be related to anemia, which causes a lack of hemoglobin in the blood and may result in dizziness, as well. While antibiotic treatment can aggravate some of these symptoms at first, they should subside once the body has made a full recovery.

Symptoms: Nausea

nausea
Anastasia Gepp/Pixabay
Anastasia Gepp/Pixabay

When a kidney infection occurs, the body may try to flush out the offending toxins by increasing urine frequency. This may cause dehydration that then results in nausea and sometimes even vomiting.

There can also be discomfort in the abdominal region. Coupled with nausea, the person impacted may also experience weight loss. Kidney infections are also treated with antibiotics, which can aggravate these symptoms and cause stomach upset by altering the bacteria in the gut.

Symptoms: Difficulty Breathing

catching-a-breath
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Having trouble breathing isn’t a common symptom of kidney infections themselves, but is rather an indication of a further complication happening. Having a hard time getting enough air may be related to kidney failure that is tied to the infection.

It can also be a sign of sepsis, whereby a body’s response to an infection damages some of its own tissues. While all symptoms should be addressed promptly, difficulty breathing is one of the more urgent scenarios.

Symptoms: Fatigue

tired-woman
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As with any health issue, fatigue is a common symptom as the body is exerting energy trying to heal itself. However, there may also be an underlying reason beyond just needing to rest and recover.

If the kidney infection goes on for a prolonged period, it can cause the organ to become damaged. In this case, there can be a hormonal imbalance that results in less blood cell production. The patient may then become anemic, causing excessive fatigue.

Symptoms: Pain Around The Kidneys

side-pain
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The kidneys are located near a person’s midsection on either side of the body. When they become infected, pain or pressure may occur anywhere near this area, front or back.

The tenderness typically is felt somewhere between the ribcage and the hips in the back, abdomen, or both. The discomfort is often felt near the side of the body and may be aggravated by certain positions, be it standing, sitting, or bending in a certain way.

Symptoms: Fever

Anastasia Gepp/Pixabay
Anastasia Gepp/Pixabay

As with many sicknesses, a fever can be associated with kidney infections. The increased body temperature could be a sign that the body is reacting to something unwanted in the organ.

Kidney infections can also be associated with anemia due to a decrease in the hormone erythropoietin. Anemia can cause a fever, as well. However, fevers associated with anemia are often low-grade, whereas a high fever is more likely to be directly related to the infection.

Diagnosis: Tests, Exams, Scans, And More

doctor-consultation
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

To diagnose a kidney exam, the doctor will likely perform a physical exam and check for pain around the mid to lower back. They’ll also look for signs of dehydration. They will also collect a urine sample to test for the presence of bacteria.

Depending on the scenario, a doctor may also perform an ultrasound, CT scan, or a voiding cystourethrogram. A voiding cystourethrogram is a kind of X-ray that uses a contrast dye to observe the bladder while urinating.

Treatment: Antibiotics

pharmacist
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Depending on the severity of the kidney infection, a doctor will often prescribe antibiotics as the first treatment option. Symptoms typically start to go away after just a few days of taking the medicine, but it’s imperative to finish the entire course of antibiotics.

The doctor may prescribe a week’s worth of medication or more that should be continued even after symptoms disappear. A follow-up urine test may be required to ensure that the infection has cleared.

Treatment: Hospitalization

hospital-patient
National Cancer Institute/Unsplash
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If the kidney infection is severe, the doctor may admit you to the hospital for in-patient treatment. In this case, antibiotics and fluids are often administered intravenously. The hospitalization period typically lasts between 3 and 7 days.

The doctor may also run urine and blood tests to monitor how the treatment is going. Patients who have diabetes, sickle cell anemia, cancer, severe pain or vomiting, are pregnant, or are seniors are more likely to be admitted.

Complications: EPN, Kidney Abscess, And Sepsis

nurse-checking-monitor
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Complications may occur if the kidney infection is not treated right away. One such case is Emphysematous pyelonephritis, known as EPN. This is a severe infection in which the bacteria releases a toxic gas that leads to severe symptoms and rapid kidney tissue damage.

Another complication is a kidney abscess, which may require surgery. Sepsis can also occur and involves the bacteria getting into the bloodstream. These complications are rare, but they make prompt medical attention that much more necessary.

Prevention: Hydration

hydration
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PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

Since kidney infections are most often the result of bacteria entering the urinary tract through the urethra, it is vital to stay hydrated. Drinking lots of fluids helps to ensure that the urinary tract is frequently being flushed out.

It also promotes frequent urination, which makes it more challenging for unwanted bacteria to make its way up to the kidneys. Aim to have a water bottle on you as often as possible and to get at least the recommended amount of water each day.

Prevention: Urination

bathroom-sign
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

Staying hydrated will promote more frequent urination, but it’s also important that you don’t get into the habit of holding it in. The longer the bladder remains full the more of an opportunity bacteria has to invade the urinary tract.

Be sure to take regular bathroom breaks during the workday or while out and about. Plan rest stops during road trips and stay aware of the nearest restroom while in public. Even if it isn’t urgent, it’s better to go than to hold it in.

Prevention: Fiber

eating-fruit
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Goffredo di Crollalanza/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Having a fibrous diet can play a key role in kidney infection prevention. That’s because fiber promotes regular bowel movements, which can lower the risk of bacteria spreading to the urinary tract.

Eating a diet with lots of high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables can help keep things running smoothly. It may even be worthwhile to consider fiber supplements if needed. Keeping the digestive tract healthy and practicing proper hygiene habits can decrease the risk of getting a kidney infection.