Understanding Kidney Failure – Causes & Care Options

M. F.
21 Min Read

Are you familiar with kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD)? It is a serious condition that occurs when the kidneys lose their ability to filter waste from the blood, leading to detrimental effects on your overall health. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the causes and care options for kidney failure, providing you with the necessary information to make informed decisions about your kidney health.

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a leading cause of kidney failure, resulting in a significant decline in kidney function. As the fifth and final stage of CKD, kidney failure necessitates immediate attention to sustain life. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and available care options is crucial to managing kidney failure effectively.

Symptoms of Kidney Failure

Kidney failure can present with various symptoms, which may indicate a decline in kidney function. Recognizing these symptoms is vital as early detection and treatment can help manage the condition effectively. Common signs of kidney failure include:

  • Itchy skin or rashes: Dry and itchy skin or unexplained rashes can be a symptom of kidney failure.
  • Muscle cramps: Persistent muscle cramps, especially in the legs, can occur due to electrolyte imbalances caused by kidney dysfunction.
  • Nausea or vomiting: Feeling nauseous or experiencing frequent episodes of vomiting can be indicative of kidney failure.
  • Decreased appetite: A sudden loss of appetite or significant decrease in food intake may be a symptom of kidney failure.
  • Swelling in the feet and ankles: Edema, or swelling, in the feet and ankles can develop due to fluid retention caused by impaired kidney function.
  • Changes in urine output: Kidney failure can lead to changes in urine frequency, volume, or color. Some individuals may experience increased urination, while others may have decreased urination.
  • Foamy or bubbly urine: The presence of excessive foam or bubbles in urine may be a sign of protein leakage, which can occur in kidney failure.
  • Difficulty breathing: Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing can occur due to fluid accumulation in the lungs secondary to kidney failure.
  • Difficulty sleeping: Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns may be a symptom of kidney failure.

Causes of Kidney Failure

Kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD), is often caused by underlying health conditions that gradually damage the kidneys over time. Understanding the causes of kidney failure is essential for preventing and managing the condition effectively.

Common Causes of Kidney Failure

The most prevalent causes of kidney failure include:

  1. Diabetes: Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a common complication of diabetes. High blood sugar levels can damage the blood vessels in the kidneys, leading to kidney damage and eventual failure.
  2. High Blood Pressure: Hypertension can cause strain on the blood vessels and filters in the kidneys, gradually impairing their function over time.
  3. Autoimmune Diseases: Conditions like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and autoimmune vasculitis can cause inflammation and damage to the kidneys.
  4. Genetic Diseases: Inherited conditions such as polycystic kidney disease (PKD) can lead to the formation of cysts in the kidneys, compromising their function.
  5. Nephrotic Syndrome: This syndrome, characterized by excessive protein excretion in the urine, can result in kidney damage and eventual failure.
  6. Urinary Tract Problems: Obstructions, blockages, or recurrent urinary tract infections can contribute to kidney damage.
  7. Smoking: Smoking can exacerbate existing kidney problems and contribute to the development of kidney disease.
  8. Alcohol Consumption: Excessive alcohol intake can harm the kidneys and interfere with their ability to function properly.

Diagnosis of Kidney Failure

To accurately diagnose kidney failure, doctors may perform several tests to evaluate your kidney function and determine the cause and severity of kidney damage. The diagnostic tests commonly used for kidney failure include the eGFR blood test, urine test, and kidney biopsy.

eGFR Blood Test: The estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR) blood test is a crucial tool in assessing kidney function. It measures the amount of waste products, such as creatinine, in your blood. The results help determine the stage of kidney disease and indicate the level of damage to your kidneys.

Urine Test: A urine test is often performed to evaluate kidney health. It helps detect the presence of red and white blood cells, protein, and other substances that may indicate kidney damage or dysfunction.

Kidney Biopsy: In certain cases, a kidney biopsy may be necessary to further investigate the cause and severity of kidney damage. During a kidney biopsy, a small tissue sample is taken from your kidney and examined under a microscope. This procedure helps determine the specific underlying condition leading to kidney failure.

By combining the results of these diagnostic tests, doctors can accurately diagnose kidney failure and develop an effective treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.

Treatment of Kidney Failure

When it comes to the treatment of kidney failure, there are two main options: dialysis and kidney transplant. These treatments play a crucial role in managing the condition and improving quality of life for individuals with kidney failure.


Dialysis is a procedure that helps clean the blood when the kidneys are no longer able to perform this essential function. It involves using a machine called a dialyzer to filter waste products and remove excess fluids from the body.

Dialysis can be performed in a dialysis center or at home, depending on the individual’s circumstances and preferences. It is typically done multiple times a week, and each session lasts a few hours.

Dialysis helps maintain the balance of electrolytes in the body and manage fluid levels, which are crucial for overall health. While it is an ongoing treatment, it enables individuals with kidney failure to lead a relatively normal life.

Kidney Transplant

A kidney transplant involves surgically replacing a failed kidney with a healthy one from a living or deceased donor. It is considered the best treatment option for many individuals with kidney failure, as it provides a more permanent solution.

Transplantation offers several advantages over dialysis, such as improved quality of life, fewer dietary restrictions, and the ability to lead a more active lifestyle.

However, finding a suitable donor can be challenging, and there is a risk of the body rejecting the transplanted kidney. Lifelong medication and close monitoring are required to prevent rejection and ensure the success of the transplant.

In some cases, individuals may need to undergo dialysis temporarily while waiting for a kidney transplant or if they are not eligible for transplantation.

Benefits and Considerations

Both dialysis and kidney transplant provide effective treatment options for kidney failure. The choice between the two depends on various factors, including the individual’s overall health, age, lifestyle, and personal preferences.

Dialysis offers:

  • Regular blood cleansing and fluid balance
  • Flexibility in treatment location (center or home)
  • Immediate availability

Kidney transplant offers:

  • A more permanent solution
  • Improved quality of life
  • Less dietary restrictions

Considerations for both treatments include:

  • Financial implications and insurance coverage
  • Compatibility with the individual’s lifestyle
  • Availability of suitable donors
  • Risks and potential complications

kidney failure treatment

Both dialysis and kidney transplant have proven to be effective in prolonging the lives of individuals with kidney failure. The decision regarding which treatment option to pursue should be made in consultation with healthcare professionals, considering the individual’s unique circumstances and preferences.

Life Expectancy with Kidney Failure

The life expectancy for individuals with kidney failure can vary depending on various factors such as age and overall health. With proper treatment, including dialysis or a kidney transplant, individuals with kidney failure can live for many more years. On average, dialysis can extend life for five to ten years, while a deceased donor kidney transplant can last ten to fifteen years, and a living donor kidney transplant can last fifteen to twenty years.

Treatment Average Life Expectancy
Dialysis 5-10 years
Deceased Donor Kidney Transplant 10-15 years
Living Donor Kidney Transplant 15-20 years

These are only average life expectancies, and individual outcomes may vary. The success of treatment and long-term survival also depend on factors such as adherence to medication, lifestyle changes, and ongoing medical management.

Coping with Kidney Failure

Receiving a diagnosis of kidney failure can be overwhelming, but it is important to remember that there are ways to cope with the condition. One of the most crucial aspects of coping with kidney failure is seeking support. Reach out to healthcare professionals who specialize in kidney health, as they can provide valuable guidance and medical advice tailored to your specific needs. Additionally, lean on the support of your family, friends, and community resources to help navigate this challenging journey.

Maintaining kidney health is vital in managing kidney failure. Regular medical appointments with your healthcare team will help monitor and manage your condition effectively. Your healthcare provider may recommend following a kidney-friendly diet that is low in sodium, phosphorus, and potassium. This diet can help lessen the workload on your kidneys and regulate your blood pressure. It is also important to manage blood pressure and blood sugar levels, if applicable to your situation, as these factors can further impact kidney function.

Engaging in physical activity, as recommended by your healthcare team, can contribute positively to your overall well-being and kidney health. Regular exercise can help manage weight, control blood pressure, and improve cardiovascular health. Furthermore, reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking are essential steps to support your kidney health. Both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have detrimental effects on kidney function and can further worsen kidney failure.


“Coping with kidney failure may feel overwhelming, but remember that you are not alone. Reach out to your healthcare team, loved ones, and community for support. Taking care of your kidney health through medical appointments, lifestyle changes, and emotional well-being is crucial for managing kidney failure effectively.”

By taking an active role in managing your kidney health, seeking support, and making positive lifestyle changes, you can navigate the challenges of kidney failure and lead a fulfilling life. Remember that coping with kidney failure is a continuous process, and it is important to be patient and kind to yourself as you adapt to the changes and care for your overall well-being.

Starting Dialysis and Dietary Considerations

When it comes to managing kidney failure, starting dialysis is a significant step in ensuring your overall health and well-being. Dialysis is a life-sustaining treatment that helps remove waste products and excess fluid from your body when your kidneys are unable to do so effectively. It is crucial to work closely with your healthcare providers to understand the different types of dialysis and choose the most suitable one for your needs.

There are two main types of dialysis: hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Hemodialysis involves using a machine called a dialyzer to filter your blood. This is typically done at a dialysis center, where you will visit multiple times a week for several hours each session. Peritoneal dialysis, on the other hand, is performed at home and involves using the lining of your abdomen to filter waste and fluid. It offers more flexibility and independence but requires regular self-care and attention to maintain cleanliness.

To make an informed decision about the type of dialysis that suits you best, it is essential to discuss the benefits, drawbacks, and requirements of each option with your healthcare team. They will consider factors such as your overall health, lifestyle, and personal preferences to help guide you towards the most appropriate choice.

Kidney Failure Diet

Aside from dialysis, following a kidney-friendly diet is crucial for effectively managing kidney failure and promoting optimal health. A kidney failure diet involves making specific dietary changes to help minimize the strain on your kidneys and maintain overall well-being. It typically includes:

  • Limiting sodium (salt) intake to help control blood pressure and reduce fluid retention.
  • Monitoring protein intake to avoid putting excess stress on your kidneys.
  • Restricting phosphorus and potassium-rich foods, as these can build up in your body and cause complications.
  • Controlling fluid intake to prevent fluid overload and maintain a healthy balance.
  • Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to ensure a balanced diet and provide essential nutrients.

Working with a registered dietitian who specializes in kidney health can be immensely beneficial. They can provide personalized guidance, meal plans, and tips to help you navigate your kidney failure diet successfully.

Comparison of Hemodialysis and Peritoneal Dialysis

Hemodialysis Peritoneal Dialysis
Requires visits to a dialysis center multiple times a week Performed at home
Filters blood using a machine Uses the lining of the abdomen to filter waste and fluid
Requires strict adherence to a schedule Provides more flexibility and independence
May require assistance from healthcare professionals Requires regular self-care and cleanliness
May involve potential access-related complications Carries a risk of peritonitis

Medications for Kidney Disease

Medications play a crucial role in managing kidney disease and its associated complications. When prescribed by a healthcare provider, these medications can help control high blood pressure, treat anemia, lower cholesterol levels, and protect bone health. Working closely with your healthcare provider is essential to determine the most appropriate medications and dosages tailored to your individual needs. Regular monitoring can help identify and manage any potential side effects.

Controlling High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a common complication of kidney disease. Medications called antihypertensives are prescribed to help lower blood pressure and reduce the strain on the kidneys. Some commonly prescribed antihypertensive medications include:

Medication Name Common Brand Names
Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors Lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), Enalapril (Vasotec), Ramipril (Altace)
Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) Losartan (Cozaar), Valsartan (Diovan), Irbesartan (Avapro)
Calcium channel blockers Amlodipine (Norvasc), Nifedipine (Procardia), Diltiazem (Cardizem)

Treating Anemia

Anemia, a condition characterized by low levels of red blood cells, often occurs in individuals with kidney disease. Medications called erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) are prescribed to stimulate the production of red blood cells. Some commonly prescribed ESAs include:

  • Epoetin alfa (Epogen, Procrit)
  • Darbepoetin alfa (Aranesp)

Lowering Cholesterol Levels

Elevated cholesterol levels can contribute to the progression of kidney disease. Medications known as statins help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular complications. Some commonly prescribed statin medications include:

  1. Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  2. Simvastatin (Zocor)
  3. Rosuvastatin (Crestor)

Protecting Bone Health

Kidney disease can affect the balance of minerals in the body, leading to weakened bones. Medications called phosphate binders are prescribed to reduce the absorption of phosphate from food and prevent bone disease. Some commonly prescribed phosphate binder medications include:

  • Calcium acetate (PhosLo)
  • Sevelamer carbonate (Renvela)
  • Lanthanum carbonate (Fosrenol)

“Medications play a crucial role in managing kidney disease and its associated complications.”

Treatment Options: Dialysis and Kidney Transplant

When kidney failure reaches an advanced stage, treatment options such as dialysis and kidney transplant become necessary.

Dialysis is a procedure that uses a machine to filter waste products and excess fluid from the blood. It helps in maintaining the balance of electrolytes and removing toxins when the kidneys are no longer able to perform their function effectively. There are two types of dialysis, hemodialysis, which involves the use of an artificial kidney (hemodialyzer) and peritoneal dialysis, which uses the peritoneal membrane in the abdominal cavity as a natural filter.

A kidney transplant, on the other hand, involves surgically replacing a failed kidney with a healthy one from a living or deceased donor. It is considered the best treatment option for long-term success as it can restore kidney function and provide a better quality of life.

You have to work closely with your healthcare team to determine the best course of action. They will consider various factors such as your overall health, type of kidney disease, and individual preferences in order to provide personalized treatment recommendations. Dialysis and kidney transplant are both effective treatment options for kidney failure, and your healthcare team can help you make an informed decision based on your specific needs.


What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD) or end-stage kidney disease (ESKD), is the final stage of chronic kidney disease (CKD). It occurs when the kidneys have lost their ability to filter waste from the blood.

What are the symptoms of kidney failure?

Common symptoms of kidney failure include itchy skin or rashes, muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting, decreased appetite, swelling in the feet and ankles, changes in urine output, foamy or bubbly urine, difficulty breathing, and difficulty sleeping.

What causes kidney failure?

The most common causes of kidney failure are diabetes and high blood pressure. Other factors that can contribute to kidney damage include autoimmune diseases, genetic diseases, nephrotic syndrome, urinary tract problems, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.

How is kidney failure diagnosed?

Doctors may conduct several tests to diagnose kidney failure, including the eGFR blood test, which measures the estimated glomerular filtration rate, and a urine test to evaluate kidney health. In some cases, a kidney biopsy may be necessary to determine the cause and severity of kidney damage.

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