Vesicoureteral Reflux

What is vesicoureteral reflux?

Vesicoureteral reflux (VUR) occurs when urine in the bladder flows back into the ureters and kidneys. This condition is most frequently diagnosed in infancy and childhood. A child who has vesicoureteral reflux is at risk for developing recurrent kidney infections, which, over time, can cause damage and scarring to the kidneys.

What causes vesicoureteral reflux?

There are many different reasons why a child may develop vesicoureteral reflux. Some of the more common causes include:

  • Having parents or siblings with VUR
  • Severe abnormal urinating patters such as excessive holding of urine
  • Being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida
  • Having other urinary tract abnormalities, such as posterior urethral valves, ureterocele, or ureter duplication

During infancy, the disease is more common among boys because as they urinate, there is more pressure in their entire urinary tract. In early childhood, the irregularity is more common in girls. VUR is more common in Caucasian children than in African-American children.

What are the symptoms of vesicoureteral reflux?

The following are the most common symptoms of vesicoureteral reflux,however, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Urinary tract infection (urinary tract infections are uncommon in children younger than age 5 and unlikely in boys at any age, unless VUR is present)
  • Trouble with urination including:
    • Urgency
    • ribbling
    • Wetting pants
  • An abdominal mass from a swollen kidney
  • Poor weight gain
  • High blood pressure

The symptoms of VUR may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is vesicoureteral reflux diagnosed?

VUR can often be suspected by ultrasound before a child is born if there is stretching of the kidney (hydronephrosis), but this does not prove that reflux is present. If there is a family history of VUR, but your child has no symptoms, your child's physician may elect to perform a diagnostic test to rule out VUR.

Diagnostic procedures for VUR include:

  • Voiding cystourethrogram (VCUG): A VCUG is an X-ray test that examines the urinary tract. A small catheter (hollow tube) is placed in the urethra (tube that drains urine from the bladder to the outside of the body) and the bladder is filled with a liquid dye. X-ray images will be taken as the bladder fills and empties. The images will show if there is any reverse flow of urine into the ureters and kidneys.
  • Renal ultrasound: This is a noninvasive test in which a probe is passed over the kidney producing sound waves which bounce off the kidney, transmitting a picture of the organ on a video screen. The test is used to determine the size and shape of the kidney, and to detect a mass, kidney stone, cyst, or other obstruction or abnormalities. This cannot prove that reflux is present, but can see the stretch of the kidneys that reflux can produce, or scarring caused by reflux.

  • Blood tests to measure kidney function.

What is the treatment for vesicoureteral reflux?

VUR can occur in varying degrees of severity. It can be very mild, when urine backs up only a short distance in the ureters. Or, it can be severe and lead to kidney infections and permanent kidney damage (scarring). A Children’s National, specific treatment for VUR will be determined by your child's doctor based on:

  • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • The severity or grade of reflux
  • Your child's ability to take specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • Possibility of the reflux going away on its own
  • Your opinion or preference

Your child's doctor may assign a grading system (ranging from 1-5) to indicate the degree of reflux. The higher the grade, the more severe the reflux.

VUR Grade 1-3

Most children who have grade 1 through 3 VUR do not need any type of intense therapy. The reflux resolves on its own over time, usually within five years. Children who develop frequent fevers or infections may require ongoing preventive antibiotic therapy and periodic urine tests.

Preventive antibiotics have been shown to stop urinary infection s in some cases and pose little risk of problems. They do not make your child less immune to disease or infection. The doses used are very low, just enough to prevent a urinary infection from starting. While you are waiting for the reflux to go away, it is sometime best to keep your child on a preventive antibiotic so that they do not have more infections.

Surgical treatment is also available.

VUR Grade 4-5

Children who have grade 4 and 5 reflux may require surgery. During the procedure, the surgeon will create a flap-valve apparatus for the ureter that will the urine from flowing into the kidney. In more severe cases, the scarred kidney and ureter may need to be surgically removed.

The procedure can be performed through open surgery, laparoscopic surgery, and robotic surgery.

Open surgery is done through a lower abdominal incision (bikini incision), the bladder is opened and the ureters are repaired in such a way to prevent more reflux. The success rate is very high (95 – 97 percent) Laparoscopic surgery with robotic assistance (DaVinci) can now be performed at selected hospitals and offers a generally shorter hospital stay and more rapid recovery with three small incisions. Children’s National Medical Center offers all surgical options for correcting VUR, including robotic surgery and minimally invasive procedures. The pediatric specialists will develop a care plan that best meets the needs of each individual child.

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Urology

At Children’s National in Washington, DC, our pediatric urologists provide comprehensive care for disorders affecting reproductive and urinary organs.

Wetting, Infections, and Stooling Help (WISH)

We are dedicated to helping children overcome challenges with wetting problems and urinary tract infections in our WISH Clinic (Wetting, Infections, and Stooling Help).

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Catherine's Story

Patient story

"Don't be afraid to talk to other parents and to reach out to them, no matter what condition their child has. It is this connection with other parents that will make your journey easier." 

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