Kidney infections, also known as pyelonephritis, are a painful condition that often requires antibiotics for treatment. However, in some mild cases, the infection and pain may resolve on their own without antibiotics. Here is an in-depth look at whether kidney infection pain goes away without antibiotics.
What causes kidney infections?
Kidney infections are usually caused by bacteria, most commonly E. coli from the digestive tract, that enter the urinary tract and travel up to the kidneys. Women are at higher risk as their urethras are shorter, making it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder. Other risk factors include:
- Blockages in the urinary tract from kidney stones or an enlarged prostate
- Using a urinary catheter
- A weakened immune system
- Being sexually active
Signs and symptoms of kidney infections
The signs and symptoms of a kidney infection often come on suddenly and may include:
- Fever and chills
- Pain in the back, side, or groin
- A burning sensation or pain when urinating
- Cloudy, bloody, or foul-smelling urine
- Increased urinary frequency and urgency
- Nausea and vomiting
The pain can range from dull pressure to intense cramping depending on the severity of the infection. The pain often radiates from the back down towards the groin.
Can a kidney infection go away without antibiotics?
In some mild cases, a kidney infection may go away on its own without antibiotics. According to experts, there are a few scenarios where this could occur:
- In the very early stages of an infection, the body’s immune system may be able to fight it off before it progresses
- If it is a very minor infection caused by less aggressive bacteria
- The infection may resolve but the bacteria are not fully eliminated, causing a recurrence later on
One study looked at women with symptoms of an acute uncomplicated urinary tract infection (UTI) including pyelonephritis. About a quarter of the women who did not receive antibiotics showed clinical resolution of their symptoms over the next few days. However, many still had bacteria present indicating the infection was not fully resolved.
Research shows that the vast majority of kidney infections will not resolve without antibiotics. In the above study, only 25% of patients had symptom relief without antibiotics while 75% did not improve without treatment. Other studies show that less than 15% of acute kidney infections will clear up on their own.
Therefore, while it is possible for some mild kidney infections to go away without antibiotics, this outcome is relatively uncommon. The risks of not properly treating a kidney infection usually outweigh the benefits.
Risks of not treating a kidney infection with antibiotics
There are a number of risks associated with not properly treating a kidney infection with antibiotics including:
- The infection can worsen causing permanent kidney damage from the spreading bacteria
- The bacteria can travel from the kidneys to the bloodstream leading to a life-threatening blood infection (sepsis)
- Puss may form in the kidneys (kidney abscess) requiring drainage
- Recurring kidney infections if the bacteria are not fully eliminated
A kidney infection can progress quickly from a mild infection to a severe one with serious complications. Quick treatment with antibiotics is key to limiting the impact on the kidneys and preventing complications.
When to see a doctor for kidney infection
It is important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect a kidney infection. Signs to watch for include:
- Fever over 101°F (38.3°C)
- Intense pain in your back, side, or groin
- Shaking and chills
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pus or blood in the urine
Do not wait to see if the symptoms will go away on their own. The longer the infection goes untreated, the more damage it can cause. Seeking prompt medical attention gives you the best chance for a quicker recovery and prevents complications.
Kidney infection diagnosis
To diagnose a kidney infection, the doctor will start by asking about your symptoms and medical history. Important clues are fever over 101F, back and side pain, and urinary symptoms.
Diagnostic tests may include:
- Urinalysis – Checks urine for white blood cells, red blood cells, and bacteria
- Urine culture – Identifies the bacteria causing the infection
- Blood tests – A complete blood count looks for an elevated white blood cell count indicating an infection. Kidney function tests like BUN and creatinine may be done.
- Imaging – An ultrasound or CT scan visualizes the kidneys and detects any abnormalities or kidney damage.
Identifying the type of bacteria with a urine culture allows your doctor to prescribe the most effective antibiotic to treat the kidney infection.
Kidney infection treatment
For most kidney infections, prompt antibiotic treatment is the recommended course. The types of antibiotics used may include:
The usual antibiotic duration is 7-14 days depending on the severity of the infection. Hospitalization may be required for more advanced infections to administer IV antibiotics and fluids. Pain medication can help relieve the discomfort while the antibiotics work to clear the infection.
In cases where there are structural abnormalities in the urinary tract, surgery may be necessary to remove any blockages and prevent recurrent kidney infections.
Home remedies and lifestyle remedies for kidney infections
There are some home remedies that may help relieve kidney infection symptoms while you are waiting to see a doctor and get a diagnosis:
- Drink plenty of fluids – Fluids help flush out bacteria from the urinary tract. Opt for water, unsweetened cranberry juice, or broths.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers -NSAIDs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help temporarily reduce fever and discomfort.
- Apply a heating pad – The warmth can provide relief for kidney pain and muscle aches.
- Get extra rest – Allow your body to focus its energy on fighting the infection.
- Wear loose clothing – This prevents unnecessary pressure on your kidneys.
However, home remedies should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment. Antibiotics are necessary to fully resolve a kidney infection and prevent complications.
Lifestyle adjustments may help prevent recurrent kidney infections:
- Drink cranberry juice – Cranberries contain compounds that may prevent bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract.
- Take probiotics – Probiotics promote good bacteria in the gut to crowd out bad bacteria.
- Practice good hygiene – Wipe front to back, urinate before and after intercourse, avoid prolonged use of tampons.
- Stay hydrated – Drink plenty of fluids daily.
When will kidney infection pain go away?
The pain from a kidney infection usually goes away within a few days after starting a course of antibiotics. However, it may take longer for the pain to fully resolve in more advanced infections.
Here is a general timeline for kidney infection pain relief:
- 24 hours after antibiotics – The fever should come down as the infection starts responding to antibiotics.
- 3 days after antibiotics – Pain levels gradually decrease but some flank pain may still linger.
- 5-7 days after antibiotics – Most symptoms are significantly improved or resolved completely.
- 14 days after antibiotics – The infection is cured and kidney pain has resolved.
You should notice steady improvement over the first week on antibiotics. Contact your doctor if the pain or other symptoms do not start to get better within the first few days of treatment. This could indicate an antibiotic-resistant infection or complication requiring further evaluation.
Preventing kidney infections
There are some steps you can take to lower your risk for developing kidney infections:
- Drink plenty of fluids, especially water
- Urinate frequently and do not hold it for prolonged periods
- Wipe from front to back after using the restroom
- Avoid using prolonged tampon use during menstruation
- Empty your bladder after intercourse
Cranberry supplements or juice may also help prevent recurrent UTIs and kidney infections. Discuss your risk factors with your doctor and if any preventative antibiotics may be beneficial after sexual activity or for repeat infections.
In rare cases, a mild kidney infection may resolve on its own without antibiotics. However, the vast majority require prompt antibiotic treatment for rapid symptom relief and cure of the infection. Severe or chronic kidney infections can lead to serious complications if not treated. Do not wait to see if a kidney infection gets better on its own. Instead, see your doctor right away for proper diagnosis and treatment to help prevent permanent kidney damage. With quick medical care, your kidney infection pain should steadily improve within 3-5 days.