Urinary Tract Problems

Problems of the Kidneys and Urinary Tract

Like other systems in the body, the entire urinary tract is subject to diseases and disorders.

In kids, the more common problems include:

Congenital problems of the urinary tract. As a fetus develops in the womb, any part of the urinary tract can grow to an abnormal size or in an abnormal shape or position. One common congenital abnormality (an abnormality that exists at birth) is duplication of the ureters, in which a kidney has two ureters coming from it instead of one. This defect occurs in about 1 out of every 125 births and can cause the kidney to develop problems with repeated infections and scarring over time.

Another congenital problem is horseshoe kidney, where the two kidneys are fused (connected) into one arched kidney that usually functions normally, but is more prone to develop problems later in life. This condition is found in 1 out of every 500 births.

Glomerulonephritis is an inflammation of the glomeruli, the parts of the filtering units (nephrons) of the kidney that contain a network of capillaries (tiny blood vessels). The most common form is post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, which usually occurs in young children following a case of strep throat. Most kids with this type of nephritis recover fully, but a few can have permanent kidney damage that eventually requires dialysis or a kidney transplant.

High blood pressure (hypertension) can result when the kidneys are impaired by disease. The kidneys control blood pressure by regulating the amount of salt in the body and by producing the enzyme renin that, along with other substances, controls the constriction of muscle cells in the walls of the blood vessels.

Kidney (renal) failure can be acute (sudden) or chronic (occurring over time and usually long lasting or permanent). In either form of kidney failure, the kidneys slow down or stop filtering blood effectively, causing waste products and toxic substances to build up in the blood.

Acute kidney failure may be due to many things, including a bacterial infection, injury, shock, heart failure, poisoning, or drug overdose. Treatment includes correcting the problem that led to the failure and sometimes requires surgery or dialysis. Dialysis involves using a machine or other artificial device to remove the excess salts and water and other wastes from the body when the kidneys are unable to perform this function.

Chronic kidney failure involves a deterioration of kidney function over time. In children, it can result from acute kidney failure that fails to improve, birth defects of the kidney, chronic kidney diseases, repeated kidney infections, or chronic severe high blood pressure. If diagnosed early, chronic kidney failure in children can be treated but usually not reversed. The child will usually require a kidney transplant at some point in the future.

Kidney stones (or nephrolithiasis) result from the buildup of crystallized salts and minerals such as calcium in the urinary tract. Stones (also called calculi) can also form after an infection. If kidney stones are large enough to block the kidney or ureter, they can cause severe abdominal pain. But the stones usually pass through the urinary tract on their own. In some cases, they may need to be removed surgically.

Nephritis is any inflammation of the kidney. It can be caused by infection, medications, an autoimmune disease (such as lupus), or it may be idiopathic (which means the exact cause may not be known or understood). Nephritis is generally detected by protein and blood in the urine.

Nephrotic syndrome is a type of kidney disease that leads to loss of protein in the urine and swelling of the face (often the eyes) or body (often around the genitals). It is most common in children younger than 6 years old and is more prevalent in boys. Nephrotic syndrome is often treated with steroids.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are usually caused by intestinal bacteria, such as E. coli, normally found in feces. These bacteria can cause infections anywhere in the urinary tract, including the kidneys. Most UTIs occur in the lower urinary tract, in the bladder and urethra. UTIs occur in both boys and girls. However, uncircumcised males are about 3 to 12 times more likely than circumcised males to develop a UTI before age 1. In school-age children, girls are more likely to develop UTIs than boys; this may be because girls have shorter urethras than boys.

Vesicoureteral reflux (VUR) is a condition in which urine abnormally flows backward (or refluxes) from the bladder into the ureters. It may even reach the kidneys, where infection and scarring can occur over time. VUR occurs in 1% of children and tends to run in families. It's often detected after a young child has a first urinary tract infection. Most kids outgrow mild forms of VUR, but some can develop permanent kidney damage and kidney failure later in life.

Wilms' tumor is the most common kidney cancer occurring in children. It is diagnosed most commonly between 2 and 5 years of age and affects males and females equally.