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What is a kidney infection?
People are born with two kidneys. However, it is possible to live with only one kidney. Your kidneys filter blood, remove waste, and produce urine. They are part of the urinary tract. This is a group of organs that includes your kidneys, ureters, bladder, and urethra. Kidneys are shaped like beans about the size of your fist. They are located on either side of your spine, below your rib cage.
A kidney infection results when bacteria or a virus get into your kidneys. The medical name for it is pyelonephritis. It can affect one or both of your kidneys.
Symptoms of a kidney infection
Common symptoms of a kidney infection include:
- pain in your back, side, or groin
- nausea and/or vomiting
- painful, burning, and/or frequent urination
- cloudy or bad-smelling urine
- blood or pus in your urine.
Symptoms can vary by age. Babies and older people might not have symptoms related to their urinary tract. Other symptoms can include slurred speech, dizziness, or confusion. These are more likely to occur due to dehydration. Get medical care right away if you have any of these symptoms.
What causes a kidney infection?
Bacteria or a virus in your kidneys can cause an infection. The main cause of a kidney infection is Escherichia coli (E. coli). This bacterium can travel to your kidney(s) from somewhere else in your urinary tract, such as your bladder. It is possible to get a kidney infection if you already have a urinary tract infection (UTI). Women tend to get kidney infections and UTIs more often than men. This is due to the shape of female anatomy.
How is a kidney infection diagnosed?
It is important to detect and treat a kidney infection right away. Your doctor can confirm an infection with urine and/or blood samples. In some cases, your doctor might order other tests. These include ultrasounds, X-rays, or computerized tomography (CT) scans. These tests will produce images of your urinary tract organs.
Can a kidney infection be prevented or avoided?
You can help prevent a kidney infection or UTI if you:
- Drink enough water.
- Urinate after sex.
- Do not hold urine in.
- Avoid using douches and scented products in your genital area.
- Wipe your genital area from front to back (for women).
Although anyone can get a kidney infection, some people are at greater risk. You are more likely to get a kidney infection if you:
- Are pregnant.
- Have diabetes.
- Already have a UTI.
- Have an oddly-shaped urinary tract.
- Have a kidney stone.
- Have an enlarged prostate (for men).
- Have a weakened immune system.
- Have to use a catheter to remove urine from your bladder.
- Have vesicoureteral reflux (VUR). This is a condition where urine can flow up or down your ureters.
Kidney infection treatment
Antibiotics are the main treatment for kidney infections. There are different kinds, and some work better than others, depending on the person. They can be oral (pill form) or intravenous (IV, or needle) form. Severe cases require an IV, and you might need to stay in the hospital. This is more common if you are dehydrated and/or are older.
You always should follow your doctor’s orders for medicine. It could take several weeks to get rid of the infection, even if your symptoms go away. Your doctor might perform a follow-up test to confirm the infection is gone. They also might prescribe other medicine or treatment to address the cause or a related issue.
Living with a kidney infection
Most people who have a kidney infection recover and live a normal life. You can get kidney infections more than once. Talk to your doctor about how to help prevent future infections.
Questions to ask your doctor
- How much water should I drink each day?
- What is the best antibiotic to treat a kidney infection?
- What is the risk of a kidney infection leading to chronic kidney disease?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.