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Can a Kidney Infection Kill You?
March 17, 2023
Read Time - 10 minutes
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Is it possible to die from a kidney infection?

A kidney infection (also known as pyelonephritis) occurs when a harmful bacteria or virus travels from the urethra up through the ureters and into the kidneys. The infection may be carried to one or both of the kidneys. Early symptoms are similar to that of a urinary tract infection (UTI), but if left untreated a kidney infection can lead to serious kidney damage, disease, and even death.

Kidney infections require urgent medical attention. In this article, we take a look at this dangerous condition. We detail the causes, the symptoms, and the treatment options available for kidney infections. We will also outline preventative measures to help avoid infection in the first place.

What is a kidney infection?

In most cases, a kidney infection starts as a urinary tract infection. A bacteria (usually E. coli) infects the urethra (the passageway that carries urine out of the body) and travels up the urinary tract to the kidneys. This same process can also cause a bladder infection (cystitis).

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), kidney infections cause the majority of hospitalizations for infections occurring along the urinary tract in the United States each year. In other words, kidney infections are more likely to result in a hospital visit than other forms of infections in the urinary system.

Symptoms of a kidney infection

The early symptoms of a kidney infection may be hard to distinguish from the symptoms of a bladder infection.

Warning signs of an infection include:

  • High fever
  • Chills
  • Pain during urination
  • Frequent urination
  • Lower back pain
  • Blood or pus in the flow of urine
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Stomach pain

    If you begin to notice any of the symptoms above, seek medical advice from a health care provider immediately.

Kidney infection risk factors

Kidney infections can happen to anyone. However, there are a number of risk factors that may increase your likelihood of developing a kidney infection.

Common risk factors include:

  • Gender: Women are more likely to develop kidney infections than men as their urethra is shorter. The urethra is also closer to the anus, which makes it easier for bacteria to pass between the genitals and cause infection. Pregnant women are at even greater risk of kidney infection than non-pregnant women.

  • Urinary blockage: Any sort of blockage in the urinary tract, be it kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, or a narrowed urethra can slow or stop the flow of urine. This can increase the risk of infection.

  • Weakened immune system: Unrelated health conditions that weaken your immune system can increase your risk of developing infections. People with diabetes or HIV have been shown to be at greater risk for developing kidney infections.

  • Damage to the urinary system: Structural or nerve damage to the urinary tract has been shown to increase your risk of developing a UTI or kidney infection. Nerve damage in the area can also block the painful symptoms caused by the condition, leaving you unaware that you have developed a potentially life-threatening condition.

  • Catheter use: People who use a urinary catheter (a tube that carries urine from the bladder) are at greater risk of developing a kidney infection.

  • Urinary tract conditions: Vesicoureteral reflux is a rare condition in which urine can flow backward from the bladder and into the kidneys. People managing this condition may be at greater risk of developing a kidney infection, as infected urine flows back up into the organs.

Kidney infection complications

Like many other forms of infection, kidney infections can lead to serious complications if not treated quickly.

Complications caused by kidney infections include:

  • Sepsis and possible death
  • Renal abscess formation (pus-filled abscesses in the kidneys)
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney scarring
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Kidney failure

Kidney infection treatment

Treatment for kidney infection will depend on the cause of the infection. Bacterial infections (the most common form of kidney infection) are treated with a course of antibiotic medication. Severe kidney infections may require hospitalization for complete treatment. Most infections, however, can be treated with regular doses of antibiotic medication.

You should start to feel better after a few days, but you should continue to take your medication even after symptoms begin to subside. Taking the full course of treatment will ensure that the infection is completely treated.

Kidney infection prevention

There are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of kidney infection. ‘ These include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids: Drinking fluids, especially water, can help wash away bacteria from the kidneys and urinary tract via urine flow.

  • Urinate after intercourse: Going pee as soon as possible after sexual intercourse can help cleanse the urethra of bacteria.

  • Empty your bladder: Urinate as soon as you feel the urge to, and make sure you empty your bladder completely. This cleanses the urinary tract of bacteria.

  • Practice good genital hygiene: Keep the genital area clean, but avoid using harsh soaps or douching as scented products can irritate the area. Women should also wipe front to back to decrease the risk of fecal contaminants getting closer to the urethra.

How are kidney infections diagnosed?

Kidney infections are diagnosed via urinalysis. Urinalysis is a broad term used to describe urine testing. This form of testing is used to detect and diagnose conditions such as:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease

Urine testing can be performed at a primary care clinic as a part of your routine checkup, or at a urology clinic. Urologists are doctors that specialize in conditions affecting the urinary tract. Your primary care provider may refer you to a urologist for more intensive treatment if needed.

When testing for a kidney infection, your health care provider will check the chemical balances of your urine sample. Specifically, they will measure levels of:

  • Acidity: Excessive acidity (ph) levels in the urine may indicate a kidney or urinary tract disorder.
  • Protein: Large amounts of protein in the urine may indicate a kidney disorder, as the kidneys are responsible for filtering these substances out of the urine.
  • Glucose: Elevated sugar levels in the urine are usually an indication of prediabetes or diabetes.
  • Ketones: Ketones are an acid byproduct of fat metabolism and, when present, may indicate starvation or diabetes.
  • Nitrates: Nitrates in the urine are a common indicator of infection.
  • White blood cells: White blood cells in the urine are a common indicator of infection.
  • Bilirubin: Bilirubin is a waste product from the breakdown of red blood cells in the liver. The presence of this substance in urine may indicate a liver disorder.
  • Blood: Blood in the urine commonly indicates kidney damage, kidney disease, kidney stones, urinary tract cancers, or bleeding disorders.

In addition to a urine test, you may be asked to undergo imaging tests like an X-ray or CT scan. These imaging tests give health care providers an opportunity to visually examine the kidneys or other internal organs. You may be asked to prepare for these tests. Your health care provider will give direction as to how you should do so.

Kidney infections can be serious–even life-threatening–if left untreated. Luckily, most instances of infection can be easily treated with a course of antibiotics. If you begin to notice the signs and symptoms of this condition, seek medical attention right away.

Sesame offers convenient and affordable video UTI and urgent care appointments with licensed health care providers so you can get the care you need right away. Providers on Sesame can write a prescription for antibiotics or other forms of medication, if appropriate. Book a video visit and talk to one of the highly-experienced providers on Sesame for treatment today.

Bacterial infections

Talk to a doctor or clinician about your bacterial infection symptoms. Get a prescription, if recommended. Pick up from a pharmacy of your choice. Yep, it's that simple.

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Medical disclaimer

Sesame content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern, it is critical to seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions. If you are facing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room immediately.