A kidney infection, or pyelonephritis, is a type of urinary tract infection that can be caused by bacteria or a virus. It often begins in the urethra or bladder and then travels to one or more kidneys. A kidney infection does require medical attention. Left untreated, it can cause permanent kidney damage or a life-threatening systemic infection as the bacteria spreads throughout the body via the bloodstream. (1) Common kidney infection symptoms include a fever with or without chills, pain in the back, side or groin, vomiting, nausea, frequent and possibly painful urination and off-colored urine. (2)
Women, pregnant women, children under the age of 2, and individuals over 60 are more likely than others to develop kidney infection symptoms. It is estimated that kidney infections affect 15 to 17 out of every 10,000 women and 3 to 4 men out of every 10,000. (3)
It is important to treat a kidney infection as quickly as possible to prevent permanent kidney damage or the spreading of the infection (sepsis) to other organs in the body. Complications are possible without proper treatment. (4)
Home remedies can help to relieve kidney infection symptoms including fever, pain and dehydration, and there are a variety of lifestyle changes that can help you prevent kidney infections.
What Is a Kidney Infection?
A kidney infection is an acute condition that occurs when bacteria or a virus travels to the kidneys resulting in an infection. The kidneys are designed to clean waste from the blood and make urine. The ureters carry this urine from the kidneys to the bladder, where it is stored until urination.
The urinary tract is made up of the kidneys, bladder and ureters. The kidneys are responsible for several vital functions including fluid balance, electrolyte levels, waste removal, regulation of blood pressure and red blood cell counts. The kidneys do this by cleaning about 150 quarts of blood each day. During the cleaning, between one and two quarts of urine are made as water and waste is extracted from the blood. (6)
The ureters are thin tubes that carry the urine from the kidneys to the bladder. The bladder stores the urine, anywhere from 1.5 to 2 cups at a time. When the bladder reaches capacity, signals are sent to the brain that you need to urinate. (7)
There are two recognized types of kidney infections according to Brady Urology at Johns Hopkins Hospital: (8)
Uncomplicated Acute Pyelonephritis: As indicated by its name, this type is uncomplicated and classified as clinically stable, with no evidence of sepsis.
Complicated Acute Pyelonephritis: If you have this type, you are quite ill or you may have a co-occurring condition and most likely will require hospitalization for treatment.
Kidney infection symptoms in men and women are generally similar and may include: (9)
- Back pain
- Side pain
- Groin pain
- Abdominal pain
- Frequent urination
- Strong, persistent urge to urinate
- Burning sensation or pain when urinating
- Hematuria, the presence of pus or blood in the urine
- Urine smells bad or is cloudy
Signs of kidney infections in older adults may not present with the common symptoms mentioned above. Instead, cognitive issues including confusion, hallucinations and uncharacteristic jumbled speech may be the only outward signs. (2)
Likewise, signs of kidney infections in children under the age of 2 may present with only a high fever. (2)
As a special note, for men experiencing kidney infection symptoms like back pain, nausea and vomiting, frequent urination, fever and chills and difficulty urinating may have prostatitis instead of a kidney infection. The symptoms are similar, and prostatitis can co-occur with a bladder infection. See your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment. (10)
Causes & Risk Factors
Recognized causes of kidney infections include: (11)
- E. Coli is often the bacteria that causes the initial infection
- Bladder infection that spreads to the kidneys via the ureters
- Bacterial infection elsewhere in the body that spreads through the bloodstream to the kidneys
- Kidney surgery
- Urinary tract blockage: A urinary tract blockage like a kidney stone, or anything else that slows the flow of urine, can cause a kidney infection.
Recognized risk factors for kidney infections include: (1)
- Being female: Anatomically, the urethra is shorter in women, which makes it easier for bacteria to travel from outside the body to the bladder. Adding to the challenge is the close proximity of the vagina and anus to the urethra, creating more opportunities for bacteria to invade the bladder.
- Pregnancy: At an even greater risk than just being female, when a woman is pregnant, she is at a higher risk as the baby puts pressure on the ureters and can impede or slow the flow of urine.
- An enlarged prostate
- Weakened immune system
- Using a urinary catheter
- Taking immunosuppressants
- Having vesicoureteral reflux, a condition that causes urine to flow the wrong way
Diagnosing a kidney infection often requires both a urine sample test and a blood test. The urine sample may reveal bacteria, blood or pus present in the urine and the blood sample may indicate the infection has spread to your bloodstream. (12)
In certain cases, a CT scan, ultrasound or a specialized X-ray may be required. If you experience recurrent kidney infections, a nephrologist or urologist may need to be consulted.
To diagnose a kidney infection in men, a digital rectal examination may be required to determine if the swollen prostate is blocking the neck of the bladder.
Kidney pain and infection treatment for uncomplicated acute pyelonephritis generally involves antibiotics. The type and dosing will depend on the type of bacteria found in the urine sample test.
For complicated acute pyelonephritis, hospitalization will likely be required. Treatment will depend on the complications that are present as well as any underlying cause. If the infection has spread to the bloodstream, intravenously administered antibiotics and fluids may be required. (13)
If the kidney infection is caused as a result of a structural block or vesicoureteral reflux, surgery may be required. After treatment, your urine and blood will need to be tested again to ensure the infection is gone. (1)
1. Apply Heat
According to the Mayo Clinic, applying a heating pad on the abdomen, back or side may help to relieve kidney pain. (1)
It is important to limit your use of the heating pad to 20-minute sessions, giving your body a break for at least 30 minutes in between. And never go to bed with an electric heating pad on. Severe burns or even a fire can occur.
2. Peppermint Essential Oil
Enteric-coated peppermint oil supplements may help relieve abdominal pain, gas and bloating typically associated with IBS symptoms. When experiencing abdominal or back pain due to a kidney infection, follow the dosing guidelines suggested on the package. (15)
Topically, peppermint oil plus a carrier oil massaged into the abdomen may relieve pain. While most clinical studies focus on the topical use to relieve headaches, it is also indicated for muscle pain and fibromyalgia. Mix several drops of peppermint oil with coconut oil and massage gently into any area you are experiencing pain. (16)
3. Restful Sleep
Sleep is one of the most important things you can do when fighting an infection, such as a kidney infection, according to a report published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience. (17)
Restful sleep can be a challenge, as researchers point out, because infections can affect the quality of sleep and length of sleep. Insomnia can also lead to poor health as it is linked to accidents, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart attack and even stroke. (18)
Finding the right natural sleep aid that works for you is imperative and it may take a combination of supplements and lifestyle changes to help you get the sleep you need. Even if you can’t sleep well, resting periodically throughout the day may help.
4. Drink More Water
Staying hydrated is crucial when fighting a kidney infection. Remember, your urine is flushing the waste from your blood out of your body. Try to consume a minimum of 80 ounces of water daily. If you have a fever, sipping on a cool glass of water or herbal tea may help soothe and relieve symptoms.
5. Vitamin C Supplement
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, a vitamin C supplement (and drinking unsweetened cranberry juice) can limit the growth of some bacteria by acidifying the urine when you have a kidney infection. Take 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily when fighting an infection. (19)
Of course, adding vitamin C-rich foods to your diet can help too. Some of the best choices, including guava, oranges, kiwis and strawberries, make great smoothies or toppings for yogurt. Aim for two to three servings daily to boost your immune system and to fight infection.
A few lifestyle changes can help prevent kidney infections: (20)
1. Drink plenty of liquids.
2. Take showers instead of baths.
3. Urinate when needed; don’t wait.
4. Females should wipe front to back to avoid the spreading of bacteria.
5. Clean the genital area before and after sex.
6. Empty your bladder after sex.
7. Don’t use feminine hygiene sprays.
8. Stay as dry as possible by avoiding tight clothing.
9. Wear loose fitting clothing and cotton underwear.
10. Treat constipation by increasing fiber in your diet.
A severe kidney infection, or a complicated one, may require hospitalization and antibiotics administered through an IV. Don’t delay in seeking medical attention if your symptoms worsen or change or if you are experiencing significant kidney pain. (1)
Left untreated, kidney infections can lead to life-threatening complications:
- Chronic kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
- Septicemia (blood poisoning)
- Pregnancy complications
- Emphysematous pyelonephritis (EPN) — a very rare and potentially fatal complication in which the tissues of the kidney are destroyed very quickly.
- Kidney infections are relatively common for women, less so for men.
- Being pregnant, having a urinary tract blockage, an enlarged prostate, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, a weakened immune system and the use of immunosuppressants may increase your risk for a kidney infection.
- Common kidney infection symptoms include fever, chills, back, side or groin pain, abdominal pain, frequent urination, burning sensation or pain when urinating, vomiting, pus or blood in your urine. Signs of kidney infection in seniors and young children may present differently.
- Conventional treatment for uncomplicated kidney infections is antibiotics. For complicated kidney infections, hospitalization may be required, particularly if sepsis occurs. Left untreated, life-threatening complications are possible.
- Home remedies for kidney infections help treat the symptoms and lifestyle changes may help to prevent kidney infections.