Kidney failure

The kidneys get rid of waste products from the body. If they stop working properly, waste products can build up. This is known as kidney, or renal, failure. It can happen very quickly, over a few days, weeks or months (known as acute renal failure) or very slowly over a period of years (chronic renal failure).

Learn more about Kidney failure

Kidney failure symptoms

Acute renal failure

  • Often triggered by serious illness or an operation.
  • Also happens following blood loss, a fall in blood pressure or severe dehydration.
  • If the problem lasts long enough, the kidneys can become permanently damaged.

Chronic renal failure

  • Can result from any disease that causes a gradual loss of kidney function.
  • Diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) are the two most common causes.
  • Other causes include glomerulonephritis of any type, polycystic kidney disease, ongoing blockage of the ureter, kidney stones, infection and kidney damage from long-term painkiller use.

In both cases, if left untreated kidney failure can be life-threatening.

Symptoms vary depending on the type of kidney failure.

Acute renal failure:

  • Less frequent urination, with smaller amounts of urine
  • Swollen ankles, feet or legs
  • Drowsiness, lethargy and changes in mood
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Prolonged bleeding

Chronic renal failure

In the case of chronic renal failure, the problem is usually not identified at an early stage and so has been going on for some time. It is often discovered on routine examinations of the blood and urine. Symptoms may not be noticed until the kidney failure is very advanced. Symptoms include:

  • Tiredness
  • General itching
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Breathlessness
  • Fluid retention (ankle swelling)
  • Weakness
  • Frequent urination, especially at night
  • Weight loss
  • Headache
  • Different urine output from normal (either increased or decreased)
  • Muscle twitching

Kidney failure diagnosis

The doctor will diagnose renal failure from your symptoms, a physical examination and tests of your blood and urine, which will show whether your kidneys are working normally. Further tests in a hospital may also be required, including:

Ultrasound scan

  • A machine passes soundwaves through your abdomen.
  • These create a computerised picture of the inside of your abdomen.
  • This can show if your kidneys have changed shape, which may mean there is a cyst or tumour that might be causing the renal failure.

Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

  • CT scans are X-rays of the body from different angles.
  • These form a cross-sectional image on a computer.
  • MRI uses magnetic fields instead of x-rays to produce images.

Kidney failure treatment

Acute renal failure

Acute renal failure treatment involves finding and treating the underlying causes. You may also be given:

  • Medication to control your blood potassium levels.
  • Antibiotics to treat or prevent infection.
  • Diuretics (water pills) to encourage the kidneys to remove fluid.
  • A special diet to reduce the amount of toxins in your blood.

If the ureters (tubes from your kidneys) are blocked, fine internal tubes called stents can be put in place to relieve the obstruction.

If the renal failure is life-threatening, you may need to go onto a dialysis machine for a short while until kidney function has returned to normal. Dialysis removes waste products from the blood and removes excess water.

Chronic renal failure

As long-term damage to the kidneys is irreversible, there is no cure for chronic renal failure. Treatment is focused on controlling symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease.

Other conditions that can follow chronic renal failure must be controlled and treated where possible. These conditions include high blood pressure, heart failure, urinary tract infections and kidney stones.

If you become anaemic, blood transfusions or iron medications might be necessary. Your diet will probably be adjusted to make sure that less waste is produced so that your kidneys do not have to work so hard.

End stage renal disease

If your kidneys continue to deteriorate in function, you may develop end-stage renal disease. This usually occurs after 10 to 20 years of chronic renal failure.

End stage renal disease (ESRD) is when the kidneys are so damaged that they are no longer able to work effectively enough to support day-to-day life. This is usually when the kidneys are working at 10% of their capacity.

At this stage, without long-term dialysis or kidney transplantation, severe complications and death will occur from the accumulation of fluids, toxins and poisons in the body. Dialysis or a kidney transplant are the only methods of treatment for someone with ESRD.

Need more information?

Speak to your GP if you have concerns about your kidneys or need advice on getting treatment. You can also find other useful websites via our links section.

Kidney

Read more

Bladder

Read more

Prostate

Read more

Male reproductive organs

Read more

Your stories

Headmaster runs multiple marathons post-surgery for TUF

Read Andy Conlon’s story Read all stories