What Chronic Kidney Disease Does to Your Body

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Doctor explaining kidney function

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects about 26 million people in the United States, making it a common disease among adults. CKD is an umbrella term for kidney damage or poor kidney function lasting longer than three months. There are many causes of CKD. If the condition progresses undetected, it can lead to kidney failure, which requires either dialysis or a kidney transplant for survival. However, chronic kidney disease progresses slowly, sometimes over 10 to 20 years. If CKD and its contributing medical problems are diagnosed early, treatment can often prevent the condition from getting worse.

Symptoms

The kidneys are adaptable organs, capable of compensating for lost function due to any number of reasons. While that may seem like a good thing, it can also be detrimental when it comes to diagnosing kidney disease. In many cases, a person won’t have any severe symptoms of kidney disease until the condition has progressed significantly. When a person does exhibit symptoms, they often include: 

Complications

Along with CKD come numerous other problems, such as:

  • High blood pressure

  • Cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death among people with CKD

  • Anemia, which means your red blood cell count is low and results in less oxygen being distributed around your body

  • Excess fluid retention, which can cause swelling in the arms and legs, fluid in your lungs, or high blood pressure

  • A spike in your blood’s potassium levels, which weakens your heart’s functioning and can lead to death

  • Brittle bones

  • Weakened immune system

  • Damage to your central nervous system, resulting in poor concentration, changes in your personality or seizures

  • Poor dietary health, leading to malnourishment and unintended weight loss

  • End-stage renal disease, which requires dialysis or a kidney transplant

Prevention

There are many steps you can take to prevent CKD, and many of these preventative measures will help protect you from other health problems as well.

  • Follow the directions on over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. Overusing medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can increase your risk for CKD.

  • Limit your alcohol intake. This means one drink per day for men older than 65 and women of any age. Men younger than 65 shouldn’t have more than two drinks per day.

  • Keep your weight in check. Get enough exercise to maintain a healthy weight. If you’re overweight, talk to a doctor about a plan to shed the extra pounds.

  • Quit smoking. Among the many health benefits of avoiding cigarettes, you’ll reduce your risk for CKD. Talk to your doctor about effective smoking cessation techniques.

  • Treat your other health conditions. Diabetes and high blood pressure are the two leading causes of CKD, so keep them under control to avoid this complication.

Treatment Options

Chronic kidney disease has no cure, but you can slow its progression by treating the complications that arise from the condition. Some of the medications your doctor might recommend include those that treat high blood pressure, cholesterol, anemia and swelling. These medicines will not only help control the complications, but they can also preserve your kidneys’ function and stave off heart disease. Your doctor might also want you to take vitamin D or calcium supplements to protect your bones from fractures. And less protein in your diet can reduce the burden on your kidneys.

If you develop end-stage renal disease, your kidneys cannot adequately remove waste, extra salt, and excess water from your body. Therefore, you have two options: dialysis or kidney transplant. If your doctor says you’re a good candidate for a transplant, you can be added to a waiting list for a donor kidney. Until you receive one, or if you aren’t a good candidate, you will need dialysis to help your kidneys filter waste from your blood.

If you suspect you have chronic kidney disease, talk to a kidney specialist, called a nephrologist, to discuss treatment options. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, you may need additional tests to detect signs of CKD. Even if the condition progresses to end-stage renal disease, people can live anywhere from 5 to 30 years. But your best bet is taking steps to prevent the disease, so take care of your body to help your kidneys take care of you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 21
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.