I feel miserable - do I have a kidney infection?

Understand the symptoms of kidney infections and how kidney infections are treated

What are the signs of a kidney infection?

If you feel a sharp pain in the two sides of your mid to lower back (these are the flanks where the kidneys are) and you experience at least one of the symptoms shown on the list below, it’s quite likely that you have an acute kidney infection (acute pyelonephritis) that requires immediate medical attention. Go see a doctor right away, because if kidney infections are left untreated, they can put your life in danger.

The most common symptoms of a kidney infection are, in order of medical significance:   

  • Severe pain in the lower back
  • High fever (>100F)
  • Unstoppable chills and shaking on the whole body
  • Nausea & vomiting
  • General exhaustion 

If you recently had or still have a bladder infection (cystitis) it’s very likely that your current agony indeed is a kidney infection. There are about 150 million cases of cystitis globally every year and in almost all cases the bacterial infection doesn’t go beyond the bladder, i.e., it doesn’t move on to the kidneys. However, for some 100,000 women in the U.S. every year such bacterial infections end in kidney infections that require hospitalization and treatment with antibiotics. That’s about 2 in every 1,000 women. So, if you’ve had or have a bladder infection — the symptoms are a burning pain while urinating, increased urge to urinate, cloudy urine color and strong odor, and pain in the bladder area — you definitely should go see a doctor about your current symptoms. 

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What will happen next?

Whether you go to the ER or your normal doctor, the first measures will be to check your temperature and testing your urine for traces of infectious bacteria. This test can also help to determine which bacteria has caused the infection, which then helps determining the most suitable antibiotic for your case. 

Depending on the severity of your kidney infection, you may receive medicine directly you’re your bloodstream via an IV tube, as this guarantees faster treatment success. You’ll most likely be hospitalized for one or two days for this. Doctors may give you additional drugs to lower your fever and reduce nausea. They’ll make sure you stay hydrated. 

Don’t worry. Kidney infections, if treated right away and by proper medical care providers, can be healed relatively fast, especially in people younger than 60. Above that age, fatal outcomes are more likely though. But to put things into perspective: in all of 2018 there were only 30 recorded deaths attributed to E.coli kidney infection.  

Kidney infections are not to be confused with simple urinary tract infections (UTI)

Bladder infections and kidney infections are both so-called UTI. That’s because the two organs, together with the urethra, belong to the human urinary tract. Over 90% of UTI registered in the world every year are “simple UTI”, which typically is an acute bladder infection but nothing more serious than that. Kidney infections in contrast belong into the “complicated UTI” category, which also includes cystitis of pregnant women, diabetic women and women with weak autoimmune systems. 

So, if a doctor tells you that you have a UTI, don’t freak out right away. It most likely doesn’t mean that you are at risk of getting a kidney infection. 
  

References

  1. Storme, Oscar, et al. “Risk Factors and Predisposing Conditions for Urinary Tract Infection.” Therapeutic Advances in Urology, vol. 11, Jan. 2019, p. 175628721881438, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6502981/, 10.1177/1756287218814382. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.
  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Definition & Facts of Kidney Infection (Pyelonephritis) | NIDDK.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 16 Sept. 2019, www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/urologic-diseases/kidney-infection-pyelonephritis/definition-facts. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

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