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Kidney Infection: When to Go to the Hospital

two cartoon kidneys in pain

A kidney infection is a serious condition that needs to be treated promptly. If left untreated, severe kidney infections can cause permanent damage. Please keep reading to learn how to recognize a kidney infection. We will also discuss when to go to the hospital and what you can expect in terms of kidney infection treatment.

What is a kidney infection?

A kidney infection is a type of urinary tract infection. To understand, let’s take a quick look at the organs of the urinary system. The urinary tract includes two kidneys, two ureters (a ureter is a narrow tube that carries urine from each kidney to the urinary bladder), the urinary bladder, and the urethra (a tube that allows the body to drain urine out). 

A kidney infection commonly begins in the urethra or urinary bladder, which is the lower urinary tract. This is frequently referred to as a urinary tract infection (UTI) or a bladder infection. Some UTIs get better on their own, but most do not. If left untreated, a UTI can spread to one or both kidneys and cause a kidney infection (medical term: pyelonephritis).

Kidney infections are dangerous because they can potentially lead to serious complications such as renal abscess, chronic kidney disease, kidney failure, high blood pressure, septicemia (bacteria in the bloodstream), shock, and even death. 

That’s why it’s important to seek prompt medical attention and get a proper kidney infection diagnosis and treatment from a healthcare provider.

What are kidney infection symptoms?

A kidney infection is a severe UTI of the upper urinary tract. Many symptoms of kidney infection feel similar to symptoms of lower urinary tract infections, i.e., urethra and bladder infections, such as:

  • Pain or burning with urination
  • Frequency and urgency to urinate
  • Bad-smelling urine
  • Cloudy or bloody urine

The following symptoms are also common with a severe kidney infection:

  • Pain in the flanks (sides of the body) 
  • Pain in the upper or lower abdomen
  • Fever and chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mental status changes such as confusion and slurred speech in the elderly

How long can you let a kidney infection go?

You should not let a kidney infection go for even a few days. Seek medical attention as soon as you develop UTI symptoms. Lower urinary tract infections can quickly develop into kidney infections over a few hours to a few days. 

If your health care provider suspects a kidney infection, they will obtain a urine sample and order urine tests. Sometimes, they may order an imaging study such as a CT scan

If you have a kidney infection, they can prescribe oral medication if it is mild, because in moderate to severe cases it will be intravenous (kidney infections antibiotics). They may also give you pain medicine, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to relieve pain. 

When treated promptly with proper medical care, a kidney infection does not usually cause permanent kidney problems. 

If you have recurrent kidney infections, your primary care provider may refer you to a kidney specialist or urinary surgeon.

When should you go to the ER for a kidney infection?

You should go to the emergency room for a kidney infection if you have a high fever (over 101°F), severe pain, nausea, vomiting, or inability to stay hydrated. Basically, any suspicion of a kidney infection is a reason to go to the doctor.

When to go to the doctor for a kidney infection?

You should see your doctor as soon as possible if you think you have a kidney infection. In addition, see your healthcare provider if you're on treatment for a UTI and your symptoms are not improving or are getting worse. 

Do you get hospitalized for a kidney infection?

The majority of kidney infections can be treated with a course of antibiotics at home. However, your doctor may admit you to the hospital for more serious kidney infections, so you can receive intravenous (IV) antibiotics. People with a weakened immune system or some other underlying medical problem may also require hospitalization for a kidney infection. 

Who is at risk of getting kidney infections?

Anyone can get a kidney infection. However, certain people are at a higher risk, such as

  • Sexually active men and women who hold urine in or use spermicide and diaphragms.
  • Women (the female anatomy makes it harder for the body to flush bacteria out). 
  • Postmenopausal women, men with an enlarged prostate gland, and people with health conditions like urinary incontinence (urine leakage) and glycosuria (high glucose levels in urine).
  • People with congenital abnormal anatomies, such as a misshapen urinary tract or vesicoureteral reflux (backflow of urine).
  • Certain people who are genetically predisposed to repeated kidney infections. 

What can you do to prevent future kidney infections? 

A kidney infection develops when a UTI affecting the lower urinary tract (urethra and bladder) spreads upward. To prevent kidney infections, you need to prevent UTIs. You can do this by:

  • Wiping from front to back after using the toilet. In women, this prevents bacteria from the anus from entering the urethra.
  • Drinking fluids to flush out the urinary tract.
  • Not holding urine in and using the bathroom as soon as you need to pee.
  • Avoid using spermicide and diaphragms and use other birth control methods like condoms.
  • Peeing after sex to reduce bacteria in the urethra. 
  • Using vaginal estrogen to reduce vaginal dryness in postmenopausal women.
  • Seeking prompt medical care for a UTI or kidney infection symptoms rather than relying on an over-the-counter pain reliever or home remedies like cranberry juice.
  • Take the full course of antibiotics for UTI as prescribed by your doctor. 
  • Do a lab test, such as a repeat urine culture test as recommended by your doctor to ensure that the infection is gone.

Can you take antibiotics long-term to prevent frequent UTIs?

You should only take antibiotics to prevent frequent UTIs under the guidance of your doctor. Overuse of antibiotics can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you have UTIs more than three times a year, your doctor may prescribe a low-dose antibiotic for prevention. Or they may ask you to start antibiotics at the first sign of kidney infection symptoms. Some people benefit from taking a single dose of antibiotics after sexual intercourse or at symptom onset to prevent severe kidney infection. The treatment plan will depend on your past medical history. Discuss the treatment options for UTI or kidney infection with your doctor before taking preventive antibiotics.



  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/kidney-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20353387