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Kidney infection (pyelonephritis)

A kidney infection – also known as pyelonephritis – is a particular kind of urinary tract infection (UTI) that affects the kidneys. 

Medical tests for a kidney infection

It may develop from a bladder infection and progress up the ureters (the two tubes that join the bladder and kidneys) to infect the kidneys. 

Bacteria from an infection elsewhere in the body can also spread via the bloodstream to your kidneys. Untreated kidney infections can result in serious complications including permanent kidney damage or blood poisoning. 

Most often the causes of pyelonephritis are bacteria, such as E.coli and klebsiella, found in stools. Kidney stones can also contribute by providing a place for bacteria to multiply. 

What are its symptoms?

Symptoms of a kidney infection may include the following:

  • A burning sensation or pain when urinating
  • Presence of blood or pus in the urine
  • Maldorous and/or cloudy urine
  • Frequent urination
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Groin or back pain
  • Pain in the sides of your body (known as flank pain)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion (more common in the elderly)

How is it diagnosed? 

Your doctor will take a history and conduct a physical exam based on your symptoms. Certain tests may also be performed to assist with diagnosis, including the following:

  • A urine test or urinalysis to detect the presence of bacteria, pus, blood and protein
  • A blood culture to test for bacteria
  • A kidney ultrasound
  • An X-ray known as a voiding cystourethrogram that takes pictures of your bladder and urethra when your bladder is full and while you are urinating.

What are your treatment options? 

Normally, antibiotics are the first line of treatment for kidney infections. Your doctor will prescribe medication based on your health and the bacteria found in your urinalysis. Always be sure to take the medication as directed and complete the course. 

Severe kidney infection may require hospitalisation, where antibiotics are usually administered intravenously. 

If you suffer from recurrent kidney infections you may need to see a kidney specialist (a nephrologist) or a urologist for an evaluation. There may be an underlying structural abnormality with your urinary tract. 

Can it be prevented? 

You can reduce your risk of developing kidney infection by taking steps to preventing urinary tract infections (UTIs) from developing.

The following are good preventative measures:

  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water
  • Don’t avoid urinating when you need to; always urinate when you feel the urge
  • Empty your bladder after intercourse (this helps to clear bacteria from the urethra)
  • Wipe from front to back after urinating and bowel movements as this helps to prevent bacteria from faecal matter entering the urethra.
  • Avoid feminine hygiene products, such as douches or deodorant sprays in the genital area

Also, take note of the following risk factors for kidney infection:

  • Being female: Anatomically women are at greater risk of developing UTIs. The urethra is much shorter than in men, so bacteria have a shorter distance to travel to the bladder
  • UTIs are a risk factor in pregnancy
  • The presence of an obstruction in the urinary tract, such as a kidney stone, an enlarged prostate, or structural abnormalities in the urinary system
  • Damage to the nerves around the bladder
  • A weakened immune system

If you need advice on how to prevent and treat a UTI, be sure to consult with your doctor and Clicks pharmacist.

For more info

For more information on kidney health, visit the National Kidney Foundation.

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IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2016