What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure, also called renal failure, is a life-threatening condition in which there is a buildup of waste and fluid in the body due to severe deterioration of kidney function. The kidneys are vital internal organs located in the upper abdomen. Normally, people have two bean-shaped kidneys that form a part of the urinary tract in the genitourinary system.

Healthy kidneys function continuously and the body’s total blood supply passes through the kidneys several times each minute. The healthy body can continue to function with only one good kidney, as happens when someone volunteers to be a live kidney donor.

Kidney failure is caused by a variety of kidney diseases and other conditions that lead to kidney damage and deterioration of kidney function. Kidney failure can make it difficult or impossible for the kidneys to perform functions that are critical to life and your overall health including:

  • Filtering waste products and excess water and salts from the blood, which are then eliminated from the body through the ureters, bladder and urethra in the form of urine

  • Producing certain hormones, such as renin, which helps regulate blood pressure

  • Producing the active form of vitamin D (calcitriol)

  • Regulating electrolytes and other vital substances, such as sodium, calcium, and potassium

  • Regulating the level and quality of fluid in the body

  • Stimulating red blood cell production

There are two general types of kidney failure:

  • Acute renal failure is a condition in which there is damage and deterioration of kidney function that occurs suddenly, generally over a period of days. Acute renal failure can be caused by such conditions as shock, acute pyelonephritis, urinary tract obstruction, or ingestion of certain toxic substances. In some cases, acute renal failure can be totally reversible without long-term consequences.

  • Chronic kidney failure is a condition in which there is damage and deterioration of kidney function that occurs over a long period of time (months to years). Chronic kidney failure is generally caused by long-term diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Once permanent kidney damage has occurred due to kidney disease or other conditions, such as uncontrolled hypertension, it cannot be reversed or cured. Seek prompt and regular medical care if you have risk factors for kidney disease, such as hypertension or diabetes. Patient compliance with a good treatment plan may prevent, slow or stop progression of kidney damage and minimize complications.

Kidney failure is a life-threatening condition because it critically affects the kidneys' ability to function normally. However, rapid diagnosis and treatment of underlying causes of acute kidney failure may reverse the condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have symptoms of kidney failure, such as severe shortness of breath, bloody stools or urine, sudden decrease in urine output or lack of urinating, severe flank pain, or a change in consciousness or alertness. You should also seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have overdosed on a drug or ingested a toxic substance.


What are the symptoms of kidney failure?

Symptoms of kidney failure, kidney disease, and other underlying causes of kidney failure can vary. General symptoms can include:


What causes kidney failure?

Kidney failure can be caused by a wide variety of underlying diseases, disorders or conditions that lead to kidney damage, such as obstruction, infection, malignancy, inflammation, deformity, toxic ingestion, or a reduced blood supply to the kidneys. Underlying causes include:

  • Diabetes, which can damage the kidneys over time

How is kidney failure treated?

Treatment or prevention of kidney failure begins with treatment of the underlying cause. Treatment plans vary depending on the underlying cause or disease. The goal of treatment is to cure or control the underlying condition and prevent excessive fluid and waste from accumulating in the body, as well as to stop or slow the progression of kidney damage. Treatment may also minimize complications ... Read more about kidney failuretreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Sep 6, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Kidneys and the Urinary System

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