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 your blood by filtering salt and water.

Kidney failure is divided into two categories:

  • Acute kidney failure — sudden loss of kidney function; can happen after an injury or poisoning
  • Chronic kidney failure — slow, gradual loss of kidney function; may take years or even decades to cause noticeable damage

Commons causes of kidney disease include:

  • Diabetes — high blood sugar can damage nephrons
  • High blood pressure — severe high blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the kidneys

Kidney Failure Care at UVA Health

Our kidney failure care is nationally recognized by U.S. News & World Report. They've rated our kidney failure services as "high performing," their highest rating. 

Symptoms of Kidney Failure

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

We can diagnose your symptoms using renal ultrasound and bodily fluid tests.

Treating Kidney Failure

Most chronic kidney diseases are not reversible. But, there are treatments that may be used to 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.

General Measures

  • Restricting fluids
  • Doing daily weight checks
  • Eating a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet


Medications used in acute or chronic kidney failure may include:

  • Diuretics — to flush out the kidneys, increase urine flow, and rid the body of excess sodium
  • 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 the 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

This may be the right option for some patients. Having a successful transplant depends on many factors, such as what is causing kidney damage and your overall health.

Are You at Risk?

Factors that increase your chance of developing kidney failure include:

  • Pyelonephritis
  • Glomerulonephritis
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Genetics: polycystic kidney disease and type 1 diabetes
  • Race: African American
  • 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

Keep Your Kidneys Healthy

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. Ask your doctor for help.
  • Avoid the chronic use of pain medications.
  • If you have chronic kidney disease, you may need to limit how much protein you eat. Talk to a dietician.
  • Limit how much cholesterol and sodium you eat.
  • If you have severe kidney disease, limit how much potassium you eat. If your kidneys are failing, get help from a dietician.

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.