You wake up one morning with pain in your lower abdomen. When you go to the bathroom, you realize it hurts to pee, and what’s more alarming, when you look at your output, you see that it’s reddish in color. But is it a urinary tract infection, or is it a kidney stone?
While the symptoms of urinary tract infections and kidney stones can be similar, there are some very important differences that will help you (and your doctor) figure out which condition it is.
Symptoms of urinary tract infections may include a strong, persistent urge to urinate; a burning sensation when urinating; passing small amounts of urine frequently; urine that appears cloudy; urine that appears red, pink, or cola-colored (all signs of blood in the urine); strong-smelling urine; and pelvic pain in women.
Depending on where in the urinary tract the infection is located, it could have other symptoms. If the infection is in your kidneys, you may have upper back and side pain, a high fever, shaking and chills, nausea, and vomiting. If the infection is in your bladder, you’ll probably experience discomfort in your lower abdomen, blood in your urine, pelvic pressure, and painful and frequent urination. If the infection is in your urethra, you may have discharge or burning with urination.
Symptoms of kidney stones are very similar to those of urinary tract infections. They include severe pain in your side and back, below the ribs; pain that spreads to your lower abdomen and groin; pain that comes in waves; pain that fluctuates; pain when you urinate; urine that is pink, red, or brown; cloudy or foul-smelling urine; a persistent need to urinate; urinating more often than usual; urinating small amounts; nausea and vomiting; and fever and chills if you’re unlucky enough to have both an infection and a kidney stone.
The main differences between the symptoms of a UTI and the symptoms of a kidney stone revolve around the pain—where it is and where it goes. If you have a kidney stone, you’re most likely going to have pain that starts in your back and/or side and progresses to your lower abdomen. Pain from a UTI tends to stay centered in the lower abdomen and pelvic area, particularly in women. The pain of kidney stones tends to come in waves, whereas the pain of a urinary tract infection tends to be more consistent in nature and most likely a good deal less severe.
There is, unfortunately, some bad news. If you’re at risk of or prone to urinary tract infections, your risk of developing kidney stones—especially struvite stones—is already higher than average. Although UTIs are more common in women (1 in 5 women will have at least one UTI in their lifetime), men can get them, too.
If you’ve had a UTI, or recurrent UTIs, and you want to reduce your risk of developing kidney stones, check out my book, Even Urologists Get Kidney Stones, for tips on how you can use diet and other preventive measures to keep your risk as low as possible.