Vesicoureteral Reflux (VUR)

Topic Overview

What is vesicoureteral reflux (VUR)?

Vesicoureteral reflux (VUR) is the backward flow of urine from the bladder into the kidneys. Normally, urine flows from the kidneys through the ureters to the bladder. The muscles of the bladder and ureters, along with the pressure of urine in the bladder, prevent urine from flowing backward through the ureters.

VUR allows bacteria, which may be present in the urine in the bladder, to reach the kidneys. This can lead to kidney infection, scarring, and damage (chronic kidney disease).

What causes vesicoureteral reflux?

There are two types of VUR:

  • Primary VUR is present at birth. It is caused by a defect in the development of the valve at the end of the tube that carries urine from the kidneys to the bladder (ureter). This is the most common type of VUR and is usually detected shortly after birth.
  • Secondary VUR occurs when an obstruction in the bladder or urethra causes urine to flow backward into the kidneys. Secondary VUR can occur at any age and can be caused by surgery, injury, a pattern of emptying the bladder that's not normal, or a past infection that puts pressure on the bladder. It is more common in children who have other birth defects, such as spina bifida.

What are the symptoms?

A urinary tract infection (UTI) can be a symptom of VUR. About one-third of children who are diagnosed with a UTI have VUR.1 Symptoms of a UTI may include fever, pain or burning with urination, frequent urination, and the feeling that the bladder does not empty completely. Fever may be the only symptom of a UTI in a small child. So a urinary tract infection should be suspected in any child who has a high fever without an obvious cause.

How is VUR diagnosed?

VUR is usually diagnosed when a urinary tract infection (UTI) is suspected. Your doctor will ask about the history of your child's symptoms and do a physical exam.

The following tests may be recommended if UTI is suspected:

  • A urine culture, to check for a UTI
  • Ultrasound of the kidneys. This test uses sound waves to find out the size and shape of the kidneys. It can't detect reflux.
  • Cystourethrogram (cystogram) after the UTI has been treated. This test can detect VUR and help find out if it's mild or severe. The voiding cystourethrogram, for example, uses an X-ray to take pictures of the urinary tract. The bladder is filled with dye, and pictures are taken of the bladder as it fills and empties.

VUR can be passed down from parent to child (inherited). If one of your children has VUR, ask your doctor to check if your other children may have it too. Doctors can use a cystourethrogram to see if babies who have a sibling or parent with VUR also have the condition. But experts disagree about screening for VUR, because the test involves going into the body.

How is it treated?

The goal of treatment for VUR is to prevent infection and scarring that can lead to kidney damage. Treatment depends on your child's age and general health, the severity of the VUR, and your preferences.

Many children do not need treatment for vesicoureteral reflux. The ureters grow as a child gets older. Mild cases of VUR usually go away completely by the time a child is 5 years old.

If treatment is needed, antibiotics, such as a sulfonamide (for example, Bactrim or Septra), are often prescribed. Antibiotics prevent or treat infection and help reduce the chance of scarring that can lead to kidney damage. Your child may need to take continuous antibiotic treatment. And frequent tests may be needed to check for bacteria in the urine.

Surgery may be needed to repair more severe cases of VUR. A surgeon may need to create new valves for the ureters to prevent the backflow of urine.

Surgery may also be needed if your child has repeated urinary tract infections while taking antibiotics or is not able to take antibiotics.

References

Citations

  1. Tanagho EA, Nguyen HT (2008). Vesicoureteral reflux. In EA Tanagho, JW McAninch, eds., Smith's General Urology, 17th ed., pp. 179–192. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Other Works Consulted

  • Garin EH, et al. (2006). Clinical significance of primary vesicoureteral reflux and urinary antibiotic prophylaxis after acute pyelonephritis: A multicenter, randomized, controlled study. Pediatrics, 117(3): 626–632.
  • Halachmi S, Pillar G (2008). Congenital urological anomalies diagnosed in adulthood: Management considerations. Journal of Pediatric Urology, 4(1): 2–7.
  • Khoury A, Bägli DJ (2007). Reflux and megaureter. In AJ Wein, ed., Campbell-Walsh Urology, 9th ed., vol. 4, pp. 3423–3481. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
  • Lum GM (2009). Urinary tract infections section of Kidney and urinary tract. In WW Hay et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Pediatrics, 19th ed., pp. 670–672.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Anderson, MD, FRCS(C) - Pediatric Urology
Last Updated March 31, 2009

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