Kidney stones affect more than 5 percent of the U.S. population each year, and are most common in Caucasian males. Kidney stones are no party — and they can be more prevelant in the summer months beause dehydration encourages their development.

A kidney stone is a hard mass formed from crystals that separate from your urine. Usually, your urine contains chemicals that prevent the crystals from forming, but if your urine is not producing those chemicals, then the crystals form as a result. The most common type of kidney stone contains calcium combined with a chemical found in your kidneys called oxalate. The other types of kidney stones are called uric acid stones, struvite stones and cystine stones.

Kidney stones can be very painful, with the pain usually starting in the lower back or side, and traveling downward as the stone moves through your body. A kidney stone will usually pass (albeit painfully) on its own, but if it doesn’t, you may need outside intervention from your doctor. In the past, stubborn kidney stones were removed by surgery. Today though, doctors have other ways to treat kidney stones — including shock wave treatment and the use of a ureteroscope — a long device that a doctor inserts up through your urethra to either grab the stone and pull it out (ouch) or destroy it (also ouch).

Unfortunately, if you’ve had a kidney stone before, you’re more likely than someone who’s never had one to get another one, so prevention is key. What can you do?

The best thing you can do to prevent future kidney stones is to drink a lot of water, even more than the recommended eight glasses a day. Someone who is prone to kidney stones should actually drink 12 to 14 glasses of water a day. Drinking water will help your kidneys to more effectively flush out the things that can cause kidney stones. The Mayo Clinic suggests passing about 2.6 quarts of urine a day.

Depending on what kind of stone you’ve had in the past (the only way to know is for your doctor to test the stone that passed), your doctor may instruct you to avoid certain foods. For example, if you are prone to forming calcium oxalate stones, your doctor may tell you to avoid foods that are high in oxalate, like rhubarb, spinach, beets (all no problem), or chocolate (harder than the last three). If you’ve got a uric acid stone, your doctor may tell you to avoid meat, which breaks down to form uric acid.

Finally, your doctor may give you medications depending on the type of stone you have.

There are some alternative methods that people have used to help prevent kidney stones. One way is by drinking water with lemon juice or orange juice each day. The citric acid in these juices could help reduce the amount of calcium in your kidneys. Another alternative method is to drink a cup of black tea each day. Although if your urine has a high oxalate level, this may be one to stay away from, since tea contains a lot of oxalate.

The bottom line is you need to drink lots of water, so keep your water bottle close and keep your bathroom closer.

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Photo: matthewgriff (EmmGee)/Flickr