Glomerulonephritis

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What is glomerulonephritis?

Glomerulonephritis is an inflammatory disease of the kidneys, specifically the glomeruli. The glomeruli are the part of the kidneys in charge of filtering waste from the bloodstream. Glomeruli can become inflamed for a variety of reasons. Once inflamed, the glomeruli cannot filter waste properly and become leaky, which allows protein and blood to pass into the urine.

Symptoms of glomerulonephritis include blood in the urine, foamy urine, and edema (swelling) of the legs, abdomen and body. As the disease progresses and the kidneys become more damaged, additional symptoms may appear, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, aches, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. Toward the end stages of the disease, more serious symptoms can occur, such as excessive urination, nosebleeds, bloody stool, and vomiting blood. Glomerulonephritis can even progress to kidney (renal) failure.

While glomerulonephritis can happen to anyone, it most frequently occurs in people who have diabetes, autoimmune disorders, or certain genetic disorders. It can occur rapidly or it may develop very slowly over the course of years. Glomerulonephritis can cause high blood pressure, which often leads to its diagnosis.

Treatment for glomerulonephritis includes blood pressure medication, steroids, and immunosuppressant drugs. Plasmapheresis (to remove antibodies against glomeruli from the blood), dialysis, or a kidney transplant may also become necessary depending upon the cause and severity of the condition. Changes in diet may also help to alleviate symptoms. In some cases, glomerulonephritis may reverse spontaneously; in others, it may become life threatening.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms of glomerulonephritis, such as difficulty breathing, uncontrollable nosebleed, bloody stool, or vomiting blood.

Seek prompt medical care if you have persistent or bothersome symptoms of glomerulonephritis.

What are the symptoms of glomerulonephritis?

Symptoms of glomerulonephritis are usually progressive (worsen over time). They result from the kidneys’ inability to filter the blood and an increased leakiness of the glomeruli, which allows waste to build up in the bloodstream and blood and protein to pass into the urine. Sometimes, glomerulonephritis may be symptomless. In other cases, symptoms of glomerulonephritis can be severe and progress very quickly.

Early symptoms of glomerulonephritis

You may experience glomerulonephritis symptoms daily or only occasionally. Any of these symptoms can be severe:

  • Bloody or pink colored urine (hematuria)
  • Dark colored urine
  • Edema (swelling) of the legs, abdomen and body
  • Foamy urine
  • General ill feeling
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Later symptoms of glomerulonephritis

As glomerulonephritis worsens, symptoms may worsen and more symptoms may become apparent including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, glomerulonephritis can be life threatening. See k immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bloody stool (blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Uncontrollable nosebleeds
  • Vomiting blood

What causes glomerulonephritis?

Glomerulonephritis is caused by inflammation of the glomeruli, the filtering structures within the kidney. Inflammation can arise from a variety of conditions, often autoimmune and genetic in origin. Exposure to certain chemicals and infections can also lead to glomerulonephritis. Sometimes, the precise cause of glomerulonephritis is not known.

Genetic, autoimmune, and inflammatory causes of glomerulonephritis

Certain genetic conditions, inflammatory conditions, and autoimmune disorders can cause glomerulonephritis including:

  • Amyloidosis (rare immune-related disorder characterized by protein buildup in organs and tissues that can cause serious complications)

  • Antiglomerular basement membrane antibody disease

  • Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (type of scarring of the glomeruli)

  • Goodpasture’s syndrome (rare disease leading to kidney failure and lung disease)

  • Henoch-Schonlein purpura (uncommon cause of blood vessel inflammation)

  • Immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy (kidney damage associated with an abnormal antibody)

  • Lupus nephritis (complication of systemic lupus erythematosus)

  • Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis (changes in the structure of the glomeruli)

  • Polyarteritis (inflammation of arteries)

  • Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis (complication of strep throat or skin bacterial infection)

  • Vasculitis (inflammation of the blood vessels)

Other causes of glomerulonephritis

Glomerulonephritis can arise from a variety of other causes including:

  • Cancer

  • Certain toxins such as hydrocarbon solvents

  • Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)

  • Infections

  • Other causes not known

What are the risk factors for glomerulonephritis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing glomerulonephritis. Not all people with risk factors will get the disease. Risk factors include:

  • Family history of autoimmune disorders

  • Family history of diabetes

  • Personal medical history of cancer

  • Recent infection

  • Regular exposure to chemicals such as hydrocarbon solvents

How is glomerulonephritis treated?

Early glomerulonephritis may not require treatment. In some cases, it spontaneously resolves. For symptomatic glomerulonephritis, treatment depends on the cause of the glomerulonephritis. One of the primary goals of glomerulonephritis treatment is controlling blood pressure to avoid further damage to the kidneys.

Medications for glomerulonephritis

Prescription medications may be used to control or treat the cause of glomerulonephritis including:

  • Blood pressure medications, including angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers, which lower blood pressure

  • Corticosteroids, such as prednisone or methylprednisone, which control inflammation

  • Immunosuppressant drugs, which prevent the immune system from attacking the glomeruli

Other treatments for glomerulonephritis

Other approaches to treating glomerulonephritis are aimed at reducing inflammation of the kidneys and preventing the buildup of waste in the blood. These treatments include:

  • Dialysis to remove waste from the blood

  • Dietary modification to reduce salt, fluid, protein, or other substances in the blood

  • Kidney transplant

  • Plasmapheresis to remove antibodies against glomeruli from the blood

  • Support groups to help you better deal with the stress of living with glomerulonephritis

What you can do to improve your glomerulonephritis

In order to keep healthy and minimize the effects of glomerulonephritis, you may benefit from:

  • Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption

  • Avoiding smoking

  • Controlling your blood pressure by practicing relaxation techniques

  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet low in fats

  • Exercising regularly

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help you better deal with glomerulonephritis and its treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of glomerulonephritis?

While glomerulonephritis may go away on its own or may be mild in some cases, it is usually a progressive disease that can worsen with time, leading to serious complications. Complications of untreated or poorly controlled glomerulonephritis can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of glomerulonephritis include:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 18
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Glomerulonephritis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001515/
  2. Glomerulonephritis. Johns Hopkins Medicine. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/nephrology/glomerulonephritis.html
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.