Decoding Urinary Issues: UTI or Kidney Stone?

When you hear the words UTI or kidney stone, your instinct might be to wince or grimace. That is the natural human response to UTI and kidney stones. Both of these conditions are extremely painful conditions that are difficult to talk about. Know that as many as one in 10 Americans will get a kidney stone at some time in their lifetime, and approximately 150 million will experience a UTI annually.

A UTI is a urinary tract infection, and a kidney stone is a crystal that forms in the kidneys and urethras and causes extreme pain. You have to pass the stone out of your body in order to be treated completely for your kidney stone. This is excruciating. Still, a UTI and a kidney stone are very similar and occur in the same bodily organs. 

A UTI can lead to a kidney infection if left untreated. A UTI is an infection in any component of this organ system, including the kidneys, bladder, and urethra. A kidney stone occurs in the kidneys and will pass through the urethra and out of the body when excreted. A UTI can not cause a kidney stone, but it will cause a kidney infection if left untreated. Learn more about the difference between UTI vs. kidney stone right here.

Understanding UTIs

Not many people want to understand UTIs more in their life, but knowing more about them can help you to decrease their frequency. And, when you get one, it will help you to identify what is happening here. A UTI is an extraordinarily painful experience, and it can feel scary and overwhelming if you do not know what is going on. This is typically not a serious medical condition unless it is left untreated.

A UTI or urinary tract infection is an infection anywhere in the organ system of the urinary system. This includes the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. The ureters are tubes that go from the kidney to the bladder to help you to drain urine. The urethra is a tube that takes urine out of the body from the bladder. A UTI can occur anywhere in any of these body parts, including the bladder, kidney, ureters, or urethra.

This is an infection somewhere in these body parts. Unlike many other infections, this is an infection that can be flushed out with home remedies if you catch it early enough. In more serious or prolonged cases, you will need to get some antibiotics. When the UTI is in the lower region of this organ system, it is referred to as cystitis. For UTIs that are in the upper section of this organ system, such as the kidneys, doctors will consider this an advanced infection called pyelonephritis.

These infections are caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream. When the bacteria enter this organ system, it will result in an infection if the bacteria are not flushed out of the body. The primary function of the kidneys and bladder is to flush waste from the body, and this includes toxins and bacteria. When the bacteria known to cause UTI, escherichia coli, enters these tubes, a UTI can form. Additionally, some viruses such as adenovirus, cytomegalovirus, and coronavirus have been known to cause UTI or result in UTI-like symptoms.

There are some risk factors for UTI, with poor hygiene being among the top causes of UTI. Sometimes this can not be helped. It only takes a small particle of E. coli to enter the body to cause this, and this can result in a UTI instantly. This bacteria is everywhere in our lives and homes. Adjusting lifestyle changes when this happens can help if you suffer from chronic UTI.

Some biological risk factors can contribute to UTI. If you have abnormal connections between the bladder, kidneys, and urethra, you may suffer from a chronic problem with UTI. Certain medical conditions such as diabetes, pregnancy, and multiple sclerosis can be a risk factor for UTI.

Other known risk factors include:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Neurological disorders that prevent normal bladder emptying
  • Frequent catheters
  • Some birth control methods, such as the diaphragm
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Urinary surgery
  • Weak immune systems

These are not the same risk factors as those for kidney stones, making the diagnosis between UTI and kidney stones that much easier. If you suffer from chronic UTIs and have any of these conditions, talk to your doctor about how to maintain optimum health here.

UTI Symptoms and Diagnosis

A UTI is very easy to diagnose, particularly with a doctor’s help. However, if you are wondering if it is UTI or kidney stone, the symptoms are very different and easy to diagnose at home as well. Pain during urination is the most obvious symptom of a UTI, and this is a very difficult pain where it burns when you urinate.

You may also find that you have to go to the bathroom a lot to urinate, and then only urinate a little if anything at all. This frequency and urgency are the most common symptoms beyond the pain when diagnosing a UTI. You may also feel like you have pain in your lower back and may experience pain in the pelvis region or pressure in your abdomen. Your urine will look cloudy and may smell different than usual.

If you are feeling tired and cold, and have nausea with these symptoms, you might have a UTI. If this is early, you can often treat this at home with more fluids, and rest.

If this progresses more than a day or so, you should see a doctor. Your doctor will perform a urinalysis and maybe even a urine culture from the lab. If your doctor notices more white blood cells in your urine, then you will be diagnosed with a UTI or bladder infection. If the UTI is serious or chronic or happens often, you may also be sent for diagnostic imaging so your doctor can see your organs and what is happening there.

Kidney Stones: Causes and Formation

When discussing UTI or kidney stones, you will learn that kidney stones are formed differently. A kidney stone is a crystal that is formed in the body in the kidneys or urethra. These are crystals that form when there is an accumulation of minerals in the body and urinary tract. You may get a stone in the urethra or the ureter, both of which are tubes that help to remove waste from the body.

Kidney stones will develop when there is an excess of calcium, uric acid, cystine, or struvite in the body. Excess deposits of calcium or uric acid will collect with themselves and create a stone that is very painful in the body. 

This is a different kind of pain than a UTI. The pain with a kidney stone is a sharp and stabbing pain, whereas a UTI pain is a burning sensation that is not replicated in any other illness. You will know this pain if you feel it, and typically only feel it when you are attempting to urinate.

A kidney stone on the other hand will cause pain all the time. This pain is typically localized to the side of the body and can be accompanied by some vomiting or nausea. You may also have a fever and have difficulty urinating.

People that are at risk of kidney stones are people that have too much calcium in their diets. If you have a specific medical condition such as cancer, you may also suffer more from kidney stones. A family history of kidney stones can also result in this chronic problem. Men are also more likely to suffer from kidney stones than women as the urethra structure is a little different in males.

Additionally, being middle-aged or older can put you at a greater risk of kidney stones. In this age bracket, the body begins to slow down a little bit and the muscles that support these organs are not as strong as they are at the age of 25. Maintaining a healthy diet goes a long way towards diagnosing and preventing kidney stones.

A graphic depiction of kidney stones

Kidney Stone Symptoms and Diagnosis

Diagnosing and understanding kidney stones can be complicated, although the symptoms are easy to identify. The symptoms of a kidney stone start with chronic pain in the abdomen. This is a pain that will not go away and is characterized as being sharp and stabbing pain. If you are suddenly sweating a lot as well, you may be experiencing kidney stones.

For a kidney stone to be properly treated, you will need some testing to diagnose this from your doctor first. A lab test is typically the starting point for a kidney stone diagnosis. Like a UTI, your doctor will want a urine test. This is to test for various minerals or chemicals in the urine, whereas a UTI test is looking for white blood cells. If these minerals are present, your urine will indicate a UTI.

Your doctor may also perform abdominal X-Rays and blood tests to confirm the presence of a UTI. Depending on those results, you may also be asked for a CT scan or MRI. All of these tests will be performed to confirm that there are kidney stones present.

UTI vs. Kidney Stone: Key Differences

The key differences between a UTI vs. kidney stone are the symptoms and the treatment. A UTI has a burning sensation during urination as the primary symptom. A kidney stone is a different kind of pain in the side of the abdomen and back area. You will also have more frequent urges to urinate with a UTI than you will with a kidney stone, where you may not want to urinate at all.

It is important to get a proper diagnosis when you are struggling with either a UTI or kidney stone. A UTI must be treated with antibiotics, while a kidney stone is treated differently. You might be treated with different medications that can dissolve the kidney stone naturally, and also receive pain management. The pain management for a UTI is different than it is for a kidney stone as well.

Treatment Options for UTIs and Kidney Stones

The treatment options for kidney stones and UTIs are different. A UTI is a bacterial infection that must be treated with an antibiotic. It is possible to treat a UTI at home if you get it in the early stages. There is something to the old folk tale that cranberry juice and yogurt can help to treat a UTI. If that does not help, a doctor’s diagnosis and prescription for an antibiotic will treat the UTI.

Kidney stones are sometimes treated with time. Your doctor may prescribe pain management and simply wait for you to pass the stone. You will need to stay hydrated for this. You may also be given medication to dissolve the stone, or treated with shock wave therapy to dissolve the kidney stone.

Prevention Tips for UTIs and Kidney Stones

You can prevent UTIs and kidney stones with some lifestyle changes. Kidney stones are caused by an excess of calcium or oxalate in the blood. These minerals can be diluted and dissolved easily in most cases by staying hydrated and drinking a lot of fluid. Keep your water and fluid intake high and you can prevent kidney stones by dissolving the minerals naturally.

UTIs are commonly caused by poor hygiene. You can prevent UTIs by maintaining good standards in hygiene and taking care of yourself after bowel movements and urination. You also want to be careful how you use feminine products and change them regularly. If you are sexually active, practice safe sex and maintain healthy standards to stay safe and prevent UTIs.

If you have a pre-existing condition such as diabetes or multiple sclerosis, or a neurological condition that may cause nerve damage in that area, your doctor can help you to prevent UTIs.

Find Relief From Kidney Stones and UTI

It is easy to confuse UTIs and kidney stones if you are not familiar with either condition. The easiest way to know the difference is the kind of pain and the location of the pain. UTI pain occurs when you urinate and is a burning sensation. Kidney stone pain is sharp and stabbing and persistent whether you are urinating or not. 

If you are dealing with chronic pain for either condition, see a doctor. A kidney stone will pass on its own in most cases, but your pain can be treated. A UTI can be treated immediately with antibiotics and can prevent further and more serious conditions. Talk to your doctor if you suffer from any of this kind of pain and find relief right away.

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers, MD

Sean Byers is currently a Resident in the Internal Medicine program at UTMB. He studied at the University of Queensland School of Medicine as well as received his Master’s in Public Health with a focus in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. His background is in biology, computer science, public health, and internal medicine.

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