Kidney stones vs. urinary tract infection (UTI) differences in symptoms, causes, and treatment

Kidney stones vs. urinary tract infection (UTI)Although kidney stones are often described as one of the most painful occurrences a person may experience, in its early stages, the condition may often be confused with urinary tract infections (UTIs) – which may delay treatment. Kidney stones and urinary tract infections share many similarities, but also have distinct differences that tell each condition apart.

The urinary system is comprised of the kidneys, bladder, ureters, and urethra. The kidneys’ main role is to cleanse the blood and allow for waste to be expelled through urine. Urine then travels down the ureters into the bladder where it remains until released.


Infections can occur anywhere along the urinary system, resulting in either bladder infection, kidney infection, urethritis, or urinary tract infection. Infections anywhere in the urinary system can be dangerous if left untreated, so it’s imperative to see your doctor soon after symptom onset in order to begin treatment as soon as possible to minimize complications.

Here we will focus on kidney stones and urinary tract infections, and discuss the differences in symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Differentiating Kidney Stones and Urinary Tract Infections

Kidney stonesUrinary tract infection (UTI)
OverviewStone-like formations within one or both kidneysInfections that can affect the bladder, the kidneys, and the tubes connected to them
Prevalence– One in 11 Americans.
– Estimated 2 million cases in the US each year.
– 1 in 5 women will develop UTIs in their lifetime in America.
– 8.1 million UTI cases in US.
GenderMen are affected more often than womenWomen more prone to the infections than men
Types– Uric acid stones
– Calcium stones
– Struvite stones
– Cystine stones
– Xanthine stones
– Kidneys (acute pyelonephritis)
– Bladder (cystitis)
– Urethra (urethritis)
SymptomsLower abdomen pain, pain in urination, pink, red or brown blood in urine, nausea and vomiting, frequent urination, fever and chills, urination in small amounts.Abdominal pain, burning with urination, increased frequency in urination, urinary urgency, fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, pinkish or light red urine, strong odor, pelvic pain.
CausesFormed when urine contains more crystal-forming substances — such as calcium, oxalate, and uric acidBacteria – most commonly E.coli
ComplicationsRecurring kidney stonesRecurrent infections, permanent kidney damage due to an untreated UTI, delivering premature infant risk in pregnant women, urethral narrowing in men, sepsis.
DiagnosisBlood tests, urine testing, imaging tests, and analysis of any stones that have passed.Analyzing urine samples, growing urinary tract bacteria in a lab, creating images of the urinary tract, and using a scope to see inside of the bladder.
TreatmentIncreasing your intake of fluids, medications, lithotripsy, tunnel surgery, ureteroscopy, extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy (ESWL), and percutaneous nephrolithotomy (PCNL).Drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding drinks that irritate the bladder, using a heating pad to relieve any pain, prescription antibiotics such as Trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, Fosfomycin, Nitrofurantoin, etc.

Kidney stones vs. UTIs: U.S. prevalence and economic impact

Prevalence of kidney stones is roughly one in 11 Americans. This prevalence may be on the incline as a result of poor lifestyle choices, including eating habits. Men are more likely to develop kidney stones than women, and the rates are higher among obese and overweight persons than normal weight individuals.

Annually, an estimated 150 million UTIs are diagnosed, amounting to six billion dollars in healthcare costs. In the U.S., there are 8.1 million UTI cases, with women being more prone to the infections than men.

Kidney stones and UTIs: Signs and symptoms

Common symptoms of a urinary tract infection include abdominal pain, burning with urination, increased frequency in urination, and urinary urgency. Other symptoms may accompany a UTI, including fever, chills, nausea, and vomiting. Urine may also appear pinkish or light red, and have a strong odor. Pelvic pain may be experienced as well.

Kidney stones symptoms include severe pain, pain that travels across the lower abdomen, pain that comes in waves and fluctuates in intensity, pain in urination, pink, red or brown blood in urine, nausea and vomiting, persistent need to urinate, urinating more frequent than usual, fever and chills with the presence of an infection, and urination in small amounts only.

You should see a doctor if symptoms change to a pain so severe you are unable to stand or move, if pain is accompanied by nausea or vomiting, if fever or chills develop, and if there is blood in urine or difficulty passing urine.

Kidney stones and UTIs: Types and causes

Kidney stones are caused by the crystallization of minerals, which occurs when there is not enough urine or when levels of salt-forming crystals are present. Kidney stones may be caused by many different things, including calcium oxalate, uric acid, cysteine, or xanthine.

Based on the cause, there are different types of kidney stones, which include uric acid stones, calcium stones (the most common kidney stones), struvite stones, cystine stones, and xanthine stones.

Urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria – most commonly E.coli. When the bacteria enter the urinary system, they travel to the bladder or other parts of the urinary system. UTIs can take place either in the upper or lower urinary tracts, hence their names – cystitis, which occurs in the lower urinary tract, and pyelonephritis, which occurs in the upper urinary tract.

There are two main types of UTIs – complicated and uncomplicated. The two are distinguished by the factors that trigger the infection. Complicated UTIs are more commonly seen in men than women. UTIs can also be primary or recurrent, which means the infection is happening for the first time or is returning.

Difference between kidney stone and UTI diagnosis

There are several different tests to help properly diagnose kidney stones, including blood tests to reveal calcium oxalate or uric acid, urine testing, imaging tests, and analysis of any stones that have passed.

Diagnosing UTIs consists of analyzing urine samples, growing urinary tract bacteria in a lab, creating images of the urinary tract if an abnormality is believed to be the cause of UTIs, and using a scope to see inside of the bladder, especially if UTIs are recurring.

Difference in kidney stones and UTIs: Treatment and home remedies

Kidney stone treatment is tailored towards the type of stone a patient has. One method of treatment is increasing your intake of fluids to increase urine flow, along with minimizing nausea and vomiting. Other treatment methods include medications, lithotripsy (which uses shock waves to break up the stones, making them easier to pass), tunnel surgery (where the stone is removed through an incision), and ureteroscopy, where a ureteroscope is used to remove a lodged stone in the bladder.

Over-the-counter painkillers can also aid in reducing pain experienced in kidney stones.

Treatment for UTIs usually involves prescription antibiotics to combat the bacteria. If UTIs are recurring, then your doctor may put you on a low-dose antibiotic for six months or recommend you take an antibiotic after sex.

Home remedies for UTIs include drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding drinks that irritate the bladder – like caffeine, juice, or alcohol – and using a heating pad to relieve any pain.

Kidney stones vs. UTIs: Prevention tips

Both kidney stones and UTIs can be prevented. Here are the tips you need to prevent their occurrence.

Kidney stone prevention tips:

  • Drink plenty of water and prevent dehydration.
  • Reduce your intake of oxalate-rich foods: rhubarb, beets, tea, okra, spinach, sweet potatoes, nuts.
  • Eat a diet low in animal protein.
  • Eat calcium-rich foods, but be mindful of calcium supplements – check with your doctor if you really need them.

Urinary tract infection prevention tips:

  • Stay well hydrated throughout the day.
  • Drink cranberry juice.
  • Wipe front to back to avoid contracting the infection.
  • Urinate soon after intercourse.
  • Avoid irritating feminine hygiene products.
  • Change your birth control method – diaphragms, as well as unlubricated or spermicide-treated condoms can all contribute to bacterial growth.

Comparing kidney stones and UTIs: Diet changes

Diet can play a large role in both kidney stones and urinary tract infections. Making smart diet choices can help reduce your risk of either condition.

To prevent calcium oxalate stones, you should reduce your sodium intake, reduce animal proteins, get enough calcium from food sources to avoid taking supplements, and reduce your intake of foods high in oxalate – like spinach, nuts, and wheat bran.

To prevent calcium phosphate stones, reduce sodium intake, reduce animal protein intake, and get enough calcium from food sources. To reduce the risk of uric acid stones, also limit animal proteins.

When you have a urinary tract infection, it’s recommended that you consume probiotic foods such as yogurt or kefir, bulk up on vitamin C foods (which can help fight the bacteria and ease symptoms), consume cranberries and blueberries, and limit your intake of sugary foods as bacteria thrive on sugar.

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