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How Can I Tell if I have a Serious Kidney Infection?

Medically reviewed by Jezreel Esguerra, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Bianchi Mendoza, R.N. · Updated Mar 27, 2023

    How Can I Tell if I have a Serious Kidney Infection?

    A kidney infection is a severe form of urinary tract infection (UTI). Bacteria as well as other harmful microbes make their way to the bladder, and if not treated at the right time, they can gradually spread to the kidneys.

    The urinary tract includes four main organs – bladder, ureters, kidneys, and urethra. The bladder and ureters are the organs of the lower urinary tract, while the kidneys and urethra are a part of the upper urinary tract.

    It is essential to treat the early symptoms of this medical condition to prevent it from spreading to the upper urinary tract. This will enable you to ensure that the bacteria do not spread to the upper urinary tract and cause a kidney infection, also known as Pyelonephritis in medical terminology. Either or both the kidneys might get infected.

    kidney infection

    In this article, we will discuss the symptoms to look out for if you have a serious kidney infection. We will also explain the causes and diagnosis to prevent as well as catch a serious kidney infection in time.

    When harmful microbes reach the upper urinary tract, it is a clear symptom of a chronic condition of the disease. In such cases, the bacteria may reach the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, and may even prove to be life-threatening.

    Now, let’s discuss the symptoms of mild and moderate kidney infection and understand how they are different from a serious kidney infection.

    What are the signs that might indicate kidney infection?

    Symptoms of a kidney infection are very similar to that of a bladder infection. These are: 

    • Blood or pus in the urine
    • Cloudy urine
    • Constant urge to urinate, even immediately after emptying the bladder
    • Discomfort or pain in the groin
    • Fatigue 
    • Fever with chills
    • Frequent visits to urinate
    • Loss of appetite
    • Lower back pain
    • Pain/burning sensation while urinating
    • Pain at the sides
    • Pain in the lower abdomen
    • Stomach upset
    • Urination more than usual
    • Urine of a foul odor
    • Vomiting

    What are the signs that might indicate serious kidney infection?

    The lack of the right treatment at the right time may lead to certain complications, which are as follows:

    Complications in the entire body

    The kidney infection may result in the secretion of pus, which may collect, forming an abscess inside the kidney tissue. Bacteria spreading to other parts of the body, including other organs, leaves the entire body susceptible to various medical conditions.

    Some of these are scarred kidneys, kidney failure, chronic kidney disease, and high blood pressure.


    The spread of the bacteria from a kidney infection into the bloodstream implies that it will get circulated throughout the body.

    When this poisoned blood spreads, all your organs will also get affected. This gives rise to a severe medical condition called septicemia, which needs emergency treatment.

    Emphysematous pyelonephritis (EPN)

    This is a severe infection that destroys kidney tissues and leads to the development of toxic gas.

    Those with diabetes are especially prone to this infection

    Problems in pregnancy

    Pregnant women with kidney infections are at a higher risk of giving birth to premature babies or babies of low weight.

    What are the causes of kidney infection?

    Kidney infections begin from the bladder and gradually spread to the kidneys due to lack of treatment. This infection arises due to bacteria, mostly E. coli bacteria. Sometimes, Pyelonephritis can also occur through viruses. 

    As we discussed earlier in the article, the infection may also make its way into the blood or your skin. One very rare possibility is an infection as a result of kidney surgery.

    Below are some of the prominent risk factors of kidney infection:

    • Women are more susceptible to a bladder infection as compared to men. This is because their urethra is shorter. As a result, bacteria and viruses have to travel shorter distances from the vagina or anus to reach the bladder. If left untreated, women are more prone to getting a kidney infection.
    • Pregnant women are also at a higher risk of developing bladder infections as a result of the widespread hormonal changes that they undergo during this phase. Another reason behind the development of bladder infection amongst pregnant women is that the growing fetus exerts pressure on the mother’s bladder and ureters, thus affecting the normal urine flow. A weak immune system during pregnancy may also increase the risk of bladder infection amongst pregnant women. 
    • Blockage(s) in the urinary tract like prostate stones, enlarged prostate, and kidney stones.
    • Infection of the prostate is called prostatitis.
    • Medical conditions that prevent the bladder from flushing out urine completely.
    • The use of an unhygienic urinary catheter.
    • A condition called vesicoureteral reflux (VUR), wherein urine flows back from the bladder toward the kidneys.
    • Structural deformities of your urinary tract like a pinched urethra.
    • A compromised immune system.
    • Damage of a nerve of the bladder.

    What is the diagnostic procedure for kidney infection?

    In case you experience any of the symptoms that we discussed, you need to seek a doctor’s advice immediately. They will assess your symptoms and recommend some medical tests to diagnose the cause behind the symptoms that you’re facing. 

    Medical history

    Your doctor will ask you questions about your existing and previous medical conditions to assess your overall health.

    Physical examination

    Your doctor is likely to conduct a physical examination on your abdomen for checking whether you experience pain or tenderness in the area.

    Based on the assessment from the above two steps, they will recommend diagnostic tests for kidney infections, which are as below:


    Your urine sample will be tested to assess the presence of infection. High counts of bacteria and white blood cells indicate an infection.

    Urine culture test

    This analyzes the type of bacteria present in the urine that resulted to an infection.

    Ultrasound or CT scan

    These look for a blockage in your urinary tract. Your doctor might do these if treatment doesn’t help within 3 days.

    Voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG)

    This is an X-ray of the bladder and urethra.

    Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) scintigraphy

    This test uses a radioactive material to highlight the presence of a kidney infection, if any.

    Digital rectal examination (for men)

    During a DRE, A lubricated finger is inserted into the anus to check whether there is inflammation in the prostate.

    The treatment will be determined by your doctor on the basis of the results of the medical tests advised by them.

    Hope this information helps you understand if you have a serious kidney infection in case the symptoms arise. Make sure to consult your doctor in such a situation and get appropriate treatment right in time.

    Learn more about kidney disease diagnosis and management here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Jezreel Esguerra, MD

    General Practitioner

    Written by Bianchi Mendoza, R.N. · Updated Mar 27, 2023

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