What Is Kidney Failure?

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Kidney failure is a progressive condition that can lead to a number of serious complications over time.

Your kidneys filter excess waste and fluid to prevent the buildup of toxicity within the body. Although you have two kidneys, each is made up of a delicate network of filters that can be easily damaged by a number of health conditions and lifestyle choices.

Most people lose some kidney function throughout their lives, but if this happens too fast or too soon, it can have a serious impact on every other system in your body. In time, kidney failure can be fatal. Find out how kidney failure happens and what to expect if you have this condition.

Stages of Kidney Disease 

Virtually every tissue in the body loses some of its function over time, just from use. Your kidneys are no exception.

You may have periods in your life where you have a temporary loss of kidney function, called an acute kidney injury (AKI). AKIs can be caused by a serious illness or certain medications, among other things.

If you experience frequent AKIs or your kidneys are continually being damaged from things like heart disease or diabetes, these injuries can become more permanent. Chronic kidney disease isn't usually diagnosed until your kidney function drops below a certain level of function. In the early stages of chronic kidney disease, you may not have any symptoms at all.

The five stages of chronic kidney disease, listed below, are measured by your kidneys' ability to filter fluid and wastes from your body. This is called your glomerular filtration rate (GFR). Your GFR measurement is an estimate of what percentage of your kidneys are still functioning.

  • Stage 1: In this stage, you have mild kidney damage with normal kidney function. Your kidneys have lost about 10% of their function in this stage.
    GFR: 90 and up
  • Stage 2: In this stage, you still have only mild kidney damage, but your kidney are beginning to lose more function. Your kidneys can lose up to 40% of their function in this stage.
    GFR: 60 to 89
  • Stage 3: Your loss of kidney function increases significantly in this stage. Stage 3a is classified as a mild to moderate loss of function, while Stage 3b is considered moderate to severe loss.
    GFR: 30 to 59
  • Stage 4: By stage 4, you are experiencing severe kidney damage and may have lost up to 85% of your kidney function.
    GFR: 15 to 29
  • Stage 5: At this stage, you are considered to be in complete kidney failure. Your kidneys have lost more than 85% of their original function, or have stopped working altogether.
    GFR: Less than 15

Symptoms

In the early stages of chronic kidney disease, you may not experience any symptoms at all. By the time you reach Stage 5, however, your symptoms have usually become severe and may even be debilitating.

By this point, your kidneys are barely functioning, or are not working at all. They are unable to filter fluid and wastes from your body, and these can build up to toxic levels in your bloodstream. Certain electrolytes, like potassium and sodium, that are normally found in your body can get out of balance, causing heart and neurological symptoms. As fluid builds, your tissues become swollen and your blood pressure can increase to dangerous levels.

Common symptoms people experience in kidney failure can include:

Causes

Kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD), can be caused by a number of things, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Genetic disorders
  • Infections
  • Drug use
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Autoimmune disorders

Treatment

Early diagnosis and management of chronic kidney disease may help delay a total loss of kidney function, but by the time you enter Stage 5, or end-stage kidney failure, there are few options for treatment.

The three main options for treatment of kidney failure are listed below.

  • Hemodialysis: With hemodialysis, blood is removed from your body through some type of vascular access and filtered with specialized equipment. The filtered blood is returned to your body. This treatment is usually required three times per week in ESRD.
  • Peritoneal dialysis: With peritoneal dialysis, you instill a special solution into your abdomen. This is done through a port using tubes and bags. You can do this therapy at home at night while you are sleeping. The solution filters your blood using your lining in your belly as a natural filter. Fluid and waste drains through a catheter into a bag. This process usually needs to be done every night.
  • Kidney transplant: With a kidney transplant, you undergo surgery to remove your own kidneys, and one or more donor kidneys from someone with matching tissue are put in their place. Not everyone is a candidate for a kidney transplant or able to get a good match. Kidney transplants also may not be a permanent solution, since even transplanted kidneys can fail in time or be rejected by your body.

Which treatment option you choose will depend a lot on your overall health, what caused your kidney disease, what other complications you are experiencing, and what treatment you are able to tolerate. People with kidney disease usually work closely with a team of doctors that includes nephrologists, cardiologists, and more.

Prevention

If your kidney disease is caused by a genetic or congenital problem, there isn't much you can do to prevent loss of kidney function. There are, however, a number of things that can lead to kidney failure that are preventable.

Some tips for supporting good kidney health and preventing kidney disease include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Controlling your blood sugar or diabetes
  • Maintaining a healthy blood pressure
  • Stopping smoking
  • Limiting alcohol use
  • Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle

If you have chronic kidney disease, getting regular care and sticking to the treatment regimen developed with your doctor is critical. Good compliance with your medications and treatment plan can help improve your quality of life and may slow further loss of kidney function.

Summary

Chronic kidney disease can cause gradual loss of kidney function, leading to complete kidney failure. Once you have entered the advanced stages of kidney failure, you will need dialysis or a kidney transplant to avoid fatal complications. Be sure to work with your doctor to create a treatment plan that you can maintain and that prevents complications.

A Word From Verywell

Living with kidney disease is difficult, and managing end-stage kidney disease can impact every aspect of your life. Dialysis treatments can be difficult to maintain, but a kidney transplant is not an option for everyone. Talk to your doctor about your lifestyle and the overall goals for your treatment. Having a strong support system is important when it comes to coping with kidney failure.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. What is kidney failure.

  2. National Kidney Foundation. Estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR).

  3. MedlinePlus. End-stage kidney disease.

  4. National Institutes of Health. Causes of chronic kidney disease.

  5. National Kidney Foundation. Hemodialysis.

  6. National Kidney Foundation. Peritoneal dialysis: What you need to know.

  7. National Kidney Foundation. Kidney transplant.

  8. Nagasawa H, et al. The effect of quality of life on medical compliance among dialysis patients. Front. Pharmacol. June 5, 2018. doi:10.3389/fphar.2018.00488

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.