Let’s be real, getting a urinary tract infection (UTI), which brings about the constant urge to pee and burning pain when you finally do, is the worst. While those two symptoms alone might be unpleasant enough, UTIs also have the potential to spread to your kidney (or both kidneys). Yep, 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. So if you’re experiencing symptoms of a UTI and thinking, Eh, I can wait a few more days to get those antibiotics, think again. Here’s what you need to know about kidney infection symptoms, underlying causes, and why it’s so important to get treatment as soon as you can.
What is a kidney infection?
Kidney infections are technically a type of UTIs, since kidneys are part of your upper urinary tract, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). They are caused by bacteria called Escherichia coli (E. coli) that is usually found in the large intestine, but it wreaks havoc when it finds itself in the urinary tract.
How does it get there, you ask? Well, typically the bacteria make its way into the kidneys through the ureters, which is the tube that connects the bladder to the kidneys.
Kidney infections are “one of the most common urologic conditions that we see in general urology practice,” Fara Bellows, M.D., a urologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. 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.”
What causes a kidney infection?
Kidney infections start out in the bladder as a lower urinary tract infection, says Dr. Bellows. . 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. More rarely, you can get a kidney infection if bacteria enters your blood during surgery and gets to your kidneys.
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. “Cranberry juice is not a treatment for a urinary tract infection,” Dr. Kaufman says.
In either case, not treating a bladder infection quickly enough gives it a chance to turn into a kidney infection.
Here are the seven signs of kidney infection that you shouldn’t ignore.
So, what does a kidney infection feel like? According to the NIDDK, the most common kidney infections symptoms 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.
How do you treat a kidney infection?
If you’re experiencing worrisome symptoms that make you think a bladder infection has progressed, your main question is probably how to treat a kidney infection. You absolutely can’t do it on your own. Any time you experience kidney infection pain or other symptoms like frequent urination, fever, and chills, don’t waste time seeking medical attention.