Kidney Failure
all information

Kidney Failure

(Renal Failure; Renal Insufficiency)

En Español (Spanish Version)More InDepth Information on This Condition


When you have kidney failure, 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:


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. But, many kidney diseases take years or even decades to cause damage that is noticeable.

The two most commons causes are:

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

Others causes include:

Renal Failure

Kidney failure stones

A blockage from kidney stones has caused renal failure.

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Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing kidney failure. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:


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

  • Fluid retention
  • Swollen hands and feet, numbness of 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
  • Pericarditis
  • High blood pressure
  • Low temperature
  • Seizures , coma
  • Breath smelling like urine
  • Yellowish-brownish skin tone


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may include:

Blood Tests

If the kidneys are not working properly, the blood will show:

  • An increase in:
    • Potassium
    • Phosphorus
    • Parathyroid hormone
    • Creatinine
    • Blood urea nitrogen
  • A decrease in serum calcium

Other Tests

  • 24-hour urine protein test —to see if your body is losing protein in the urine
  • Renal ultrasound —uses sound waves to study the renal system (kidneys, bladder, and ureters)
  • Biopsy —removal of a sample of kidney tissue to test for kidney cell functioning


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 cases 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 (eg, furosemide , mannitol )
  • Dopamine, atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP)—to dilate blood vessels in the kidneys, increase urine flow, flush out sodium
  • Blood pressure medications (eg, ACE inhibitors)
  • Sodium polystyrene sulfonate or insulin in dextrose—to control high potassium levels
  • Calcium acetate —to control high phosphorus levels

Talk to your doctor other medications that your are taking. These include prescribed and over-the-counter medications, as well as herbs and supplements. Since the kidneys are no longer working properly, waste can build up in your body.


Dialysis is a process that takes over for the kidneys and filters waste from the blood. This may be done for short-term, until kidney function improves. Or, it may be done 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 the kidney damage and your overall health.

Blood Tests

Your doctor will monitor these blood levels:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Phosphate
  • Red blood cells
    • Your doctor may inject a hormone called erythropoietin to help manage anemia .
  • Hematocrit
  • Platelets

Lifestyle Changes

The following are 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.


In some cases, you cannot prevent kidney failure. But 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.
  • Limit the amount of drugs toxic to the kidney.
  • If you have chronic kidney failure, talk to your doctor before you become pregnant.


National Kidney Foundation

National Kidney and Neurologic Disease Information Clearinghouse

Urology Health


Canadian Diabetes Association

The Kidney Foundation of Canada


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Kidney Disease Outcomes Quality Initiative. K/DOQI clinical practice guidelines for bone metabolism and disease in chronic kidney disease. Am J Kidney Dis. 2003;42:S1-201.

Kidney Disease Outcomes Quality Initiative. K/DOQI clinical practice guidelines on hypertension and antihypertensive agents in chronic kidney disease. Am J Kidney Dis. 2004;43:S1-S9.

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Shannon D. Medications for chronic kidney disease. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: . Updated April 2007. Accessed July 17, 2008.

Snivel CS, Gutierrez C. Chronic kidney disease: prevention and treatment of common complications. Am Fam Physician. 2004;70:1921-1928.

Use of herbal supplements in chronic kidney disease. National Kidney Foundation website. Available at: . Updated November 2005. Accessed July 16, 2008.

Your kidneys and how they work. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. Available at: . Updated August 2007. Accessed July 16, 2008.

Last reviewed February 2008 by Miguel Antelo, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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