A Guide to Kidney Disease

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Kidney disease can happen when your kidneys have become damaged by illness or injury. As a result, they can no longer clean blood of waste products. The most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. Symptoms can include swelling of your hands and feet, tiredness, and the need to urinate more often. Treatments vary depending on the type and stage of your kidney disease. Treatments can include living a healthy lifestyle, dialysis, and a kidney transplant.

This article discusses the two types of kidney disease, symptoms, causes, and treatments. This article also discusses how you may be able to prevent the disease. 

What is kidney disease?

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Kidney disease can happen when your kidneys can no longer remove waste products from your blood. This happens when your kidneys have been damaged. There are five stages of kidney disease. Each stage determines how much damage there is to your kidneys and what treatment you may need.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, kidney disease affects around 37 million people in the United States. They also state that 1 in 3 people are at risk of kidney disease. Kidney disease is a leading cause of death in the U.S. However, living a healthy lifestyle can reduce your chances of developing kidney disease.

Types of kidney disease

There are two types of kidney disease:

  • Acute kidney injury: If you have acute kidney injury, you will typically experience a loss of kidney function for less than 3 months. It may be the result of an injury, illness, blockages to the kidney, or drug use. Treatment typically includes medication and treatment of the disease that led to the acute kidney injury.
  • Chronic kidney disease (CKD): CKD is a lifelong condition. Your doctor may diagnose you with CKD if you have had problems with your kidneys for at least 3 months. Your doctor may recommend treatments such as dialysis or a kidney transplant as your kidney function declines.

Learn more about the stages of chronic kidney disease.

What are the symptoms of kidney disease?

If you have an acute kidney injury, you may not have any symptoms. Your doctor may only be able to diagnose you after a blood test.

As your symptoms advance, you may experience:

  • your hands, face, or ankles becoming puffy
  • trouble concentrating
  • not wanting to eat
  • trouble sleeping
  • muscle cramps at night
  • puffiness around your eyes, especially in the morning
  • dry and itchy skin
  • the need to urinate more often, especially at night 
  • your urine being a red or brown color

What causes kidney disease?

There are various causes of both acute kidney injury and CKD.

Acute kidney injury may be the result of:

The two main causes of CKD are:

  • Diabetes: If your blood sugar levels are too high, it can cause damage to your organs, including your kidneys.
  • High blood pressure: This happens when your blood pressure builds against the wall of your blood vessels.

Other health conditions that can cause kidney disease include:

What are the risk factors for kidney disease?

You have an increased chance of acute kidney disease if you are older or if you have had:

You are more at risk of getting CKD if you have:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • a family history of kidney failure

Reducing your risk of kidney disease

CKD is a lifelong condition. However, there are healthy lifestyle choices you can make to stop it from getting worse. Healthy lifestyle choices include:

  • managing any illnesses you currently have, such as diabetes and high blood pressure
  • getting regular checkups with your doctor and taking any medications they prescribe
  • eating a healthy diet
  • reducing alcohol consumption
  • exercising for at least 30 minutes a day
  • quitting smoking
  • speaking to your doctor or pharmacist before taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as these can damage your kidneys

How do you treat kidney disease?

If your CKD is mild, your doctor may tell you to live a healthy and active lifestyle. They will track your condition.

Once your CKD is in the later stages and you begin to enter kidney failure, your doctor will discuss your treatment options. There are three treatment options to support your kidneys:

  • Hemodialysis: This helps to restore part of your kidney function. During hemodialysis, your blood goes out of your body, through a filter system, and back into your body. The filter removes waste and extra fluid. You are likely to have this treatment three times a week, and each session lasts around 4 hours.
  • Peritoneal dialysis: A doctor places a tube inside your abdomen. It filters waste and any additional fluids from your body using a saltwater solution. This dialysis can take place in your home, 7 days a week.
  • Kidney transplant: Your doctor may recommend that you have a kidney transplant. This is when someone donates their healthy kidney to you.

What are the possible complications of kidney disease?

As CKD increases, you are more likely to experience other health problems, such as:

Is kidney disease preventable?

There are things you can do to reduce your chances of getting CKD and to keep your kidneys healthy. These include:

  • Making healthy food choices: This includes eating a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat or fat-free dairy products. Try to limit the amount of salt and added sugars you eat.
  • Getting regular exercise: Take part in an activity you enjoy for 30 minutes or more on most days.
  • Sleeping well: Getting enough sleep is important. Try to get 7–8 hours every night because this can improve your blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
  • Stopping smoking: Smoking can make kidney damage worse and increase your blood pressure.
  • Maintaining a moderate weight: If you are overweight, your kidneys work harder, which can cause damage.
  • Reducing your alcohol amount: Drinking too much alcohol can cause your blood pressure to rise. It can also cause weight gain.
  • Managing your stress levels: Enjoy activities that can help both your physical and emotional health, such as yoga and meditation.

What is the life expectancy with kidney disease?

If your kidneys are no longer working, your life expectancy on dialysis is between 5–10 years. However, many patients on dialysis live for 20–30 years.

It is important to look after your general health while receiving dialysis. This may help to increase your life expectancy.

Read more about the life expectancy and prognosis of kidney disease.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more questions people asked about kidney disease.

What are the first signs of kidney disease?

It is possible to have kidney disease and not experience any symptoms. However, the first symptoms you may notice include high blood pressure, swelling in your hands and feet, blood in your urine, and urinary tract infections.

Can kidneys repair themselves?

If you have an acute kidney injury, it is possible that your kidneys can recover and your typical kidney function return.

If you have CKD, it is not possible for your kidneys to repair themselves. You can, however, manage the condition by living a healthy lifestyle to reduce the chances of it becoming worse.

Summary

There are two types of kidney disease, acute and chronic. Acute kidney disease may happen due to an injury or an illness and lasts less than 3 months. Chronic kidney disease is usually a result of diabetes or high blood pressure and is not curable. CKD may cause other health complications.

Treatment of kidney disease depends on how damaged your kidneys are. It can include dialysis and a kidney transplant. Living a healthy lifestyle may prevent you from getting kidney disease. It can also be part of your treatment plan.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of kidney disease, contact your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Jun 29
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