Kidney Failure

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Kidney failure occurs when one or both kidneys aren't able to work normally. The kidneys remove waste in the form of urine from the body. They also balance the water and electrolyte content in the blood by filtering salt and water.

Kidney failure is divided into two categories:

  • Acute kidney failure — sudden loss of kidney function
  • Chronic kidney failure — slow, gradual loss of kidney function

Chronic renal failure occurs when a kidney is damaged and cannot work effectively. Kidneys clean waste from the blood, which passes out of the body in urine.

What Causes Kidney Disease?

Kidney disease causes the tiny filters in the kidneys called nephrons to lose their ability to filter. Damage to the nephrons may occur suddenly after an injury or poisoning. Kidney disease may take years or even decades to cause damage that's noticeable.

The two most commons causes of kidney disease are:

  • Diabetes 
  • High blood pressure 

Others causes include:

  • Pyelonephritis
  • Glomerulonephritis
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Birth defects
  • Renal artery stenosis
  • Poisoning
  • Severe trauma
  • Viral infections such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS
  • Long-term use of medicines that contain aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Abnormal build-up of substances within the kidneys such as amyloidosis and protein build-up
  • Toxic reaction to drugs or X-ray dyes
  • Systemic diseases such as lupus, polyarteritis and Wegeners granulomatosis
  • Conditions that severely decrease the amount of blood such as burns, pancreatitis, peritonitis, bleeding and dehydration
  • Conditions that make it difficult to urinate such as enlarged prostate, kidney stones and tumors

Factors that increase your chance of developing kidney failure include:

  • Diabetes
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • African American ethnicity 
  • High blood pressure
  • Lupus or other autoimmune diseases
  • Long-term use of pain medications containing aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in high doses
  • Liver failure, jaundice
  • Respiratory failure
  • HIV
  • Cancer
  • Recent open heart surgery
  • Recent surgery on an abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Condition that obstructs urine flow
  • Enlargement of the prostate gland

Kidney Disease Symptoms

Some kidney diseases begin without any symptoms. As the disease progresses, some of the following symptoms may develop:

  • Fluid retention
  • Swollen and numb hands and feet, itchy skin
  • Fatigue, insomnia
  • Low urine output or no urine output in severe cases, frequent urination
  • Altered consciousness
  • Loss of appetite, malnutrition
  • Sores, bad taste in the mouth
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Muscle cramps and twitches
  • Shortness of breath
  • High blood pressure
  • Low temperature
  • Seizures, coma
  • Breath smelling like urine
  • Yellowish-brownish skin tone


Your doctor may test your bodily fluids and tissues. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Biopsy

Your doctor may also take images of your kidneys, bladder and ureters with a renal ultrasound.

Treating Kidney Disease

Most chronic kidney diseases are irreversible, but there are treatments that may help preserve as much kidney function as possible. In the case of acute renal failure, treatment focuses on the illness or injury that caused the problem.

Lifestyle Changes

You can take the following steps to help your kidneys stay healthy longer:

  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly. Take medication to control high blood pressure.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar. 
  • Avoid the chronic use of pain medications.
  • Limit how much protein, cholesterol potassium and sodium you eat.


Medications used in acute or chronic kidney failure may include:

  • Diuretics 
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Medicine to treat anemia
  • Sodium polystyrene sulfonate or insulin in dextrose to control high potassium levels
  • Medications to control high phosphorus levels


Dialysis is a process that takes over for the kidneys and filters waste from your blood. This may be done on a short-term basis until kidney function improves or it may be done until you have a kidney transplant.

Kidney Transplant

Having a successful transplant depends on many factors, such as what is causing the kidney damage and your overall health.

Lower Your Risk for Kidney Disease

In some cases, you cannot prevent kidney failure. There are some steps you can take that will lower your risk:

  • Maintain normal blood pressure.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood sugar.
  • Avoid long-term exposure to toxic substances, such as lead and solvents.
  • Do not abuse alcohol or over-the-counter pain medication.
  • If you have chronic kidney failure, talk to your doctor before you become pregnant.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.