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What is the Difference Between Cystitis and Pyelonephritis?

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Cystitis and pyelonephritis are two related terms that are often confused. If you want to learn their technical and common definitions as well as the difference between them, read this lesson!

Breaking Words Apart

Antidisestablishmentarianism is one long and jumbled word, isn't it? But if you take it and break it down into its individual parts, it becomes easier to read, pronounce, and even understand what it might imply. This is a great strategy for medical terminology as well. In this lesson we'll use this approach to better understand the difference between cystitis and pyelonephritis.

What is Cystitis?

Let's start with cystitis. Let's break this one down into two equal halves:

  • 'Cyst-'
  • '-itis'

'Cyst-' is a word part that comes to us from the Greek 'kystis', which refers to the bladder. As such, it is often (but not always), used to refer to your bladder. It can also refer to an actual cyst, by the way. A cyst is a membranous structure, kind of like a balloon, which is filled with fluid. Maybe you've had a cyst on your skin? Actually, the bladder is also a membranous structure, kind of like a balloon filled with fluid, so the term is fitting in either case.

The suffix '-itis' refers to inflammation. Inflammation is a part of your immune system that causes redness, pain, swelling, warmth, and loss of function to the area it affects.

So, if we were to translate the word cystitis, it would literally mean the inflammation of the bladder as a result of one of many potential causes, such as radiation therapy or as a result of some types of drugs. More commonly, however, cystitis is a term that's simply used to refer to a bladder infection, usually as a result of bacteria. People with this condition will often report that they need to urinate frequently and that they may have a painful or burning sensation when urinating.

What is Pyelonephritis?

A related term to cystitis is 'pyelonephritis'. Let's break this one down. Since it's a longer word, we'll break it down into three parts:

  • 'Pyelo-'
  • '-nephr-'
  • '-itis'

You already know what '-itis' means. Awesome! 'Pyelo-' refers to an area of the kidney that's known as the renal (kidney) pelvis. It comes to us from the Greek 'pyelos', which means 'tub' or 'basin' and the renal pelvis is a 'basin-like' anatomical structure that eventually narrows to form the tube-like portion of the ureter. A ureter is the tube that collects and passes urine from the kidneys and to the bladder. The word part '-nephr-' is a shortened version of 'nephro-', which means kidney as it come to us from the Greek word for kidney, 'nephros'.

The kidney, renal pelvis, and ureter.
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