Thumbnail image of: Kidney: Illustration

Kidney Failure

What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure is a shutdown of your kidneys. Acute kidney failure happens suddenly. Chronic kidney disease causes damage to the kidneys slowly over time and may cause kidney failure.

The kidneys are inside your belly, on either side of your spine just above your waist. They make urine by removing waste products, extra salt and other minerals, and water from the blood. As long as you have at least one kidney that is working, your body can filter enough blood and make enough urine to keep you healthy.

When you have kidney failure:

  • Your body cannot get rid of wastes.
  • Your body cannot keep a healthy balance of water and minerals.
  • Your kidneys may make less urine, or no urine.

If not treated, kidney failure will cause death within a few days or weeks.

What is the cause?

Acute kidney failure can happen when your kidneys don’t get enough blood flow to work properly or if they are damaged in some other way. Problems that can cause sudden failure include:

  • Heart attack
  • Kidney stones
  • Severe burn or injury
  • Loss of a lot of fluid from vomiting, diarrhea, or heat illness
  • Loss of a lot of blood from an injury or bleeding problem
  • Infection in the kidneys or blood
  • Poisons or an allergic reaction to a medicine

Sometimes blockage of urine flow causes or contributes to acute kidney failure. This can happen, for example, when a man’s prostate gland is enlarged.

Kidney failure caused by chronic kidney disease is more common in middle-aged and older people. It is caused by damage to the kidneys over the years by diseases such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Heart or lung disease
  • Autoimmune disease, which is a disease that causes your body to mistakenly attack your own tissue, for example, lupus
  • Injury to the kidneys, kidney infection, and other kidney problems

Using nonprescription painkillers, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen, for a long time can also cause chronic kidney failure. A family history of chronic kidney disease is also a risk factor.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may come on suddenly with acute kidney failure or over several months with chronic kidney disease. Some of the common symptoms of kidney failure include:

  • Changes in urine, such as urinating more often, less often, or not at all
  • Swelling, especially in your legs, feet, or ankles
  • Muscle cramps or weakness
  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Unusual pain in one or both sides of the back
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion or seizures

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • Blood and urine tests
  • Ultrasound scan, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the kidneys
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the kidneys
  • Needle biopsy, which is the removal of a small piece of tissue from your kidney with a needle

A catheter (tube) may be placed in your bladder to measure how much urine your body makes.

How is it treated?

The treatment of kidney failure depends on the cause. Acute kidney failure is treated in a hospital. Your kidneys usually start working normally when the cause of the kidney failure is treated. For example:

  • You may be treated for an infection.
  • You may be given diuretics (“water pills”) to help your kidneys make urine.
  • You may be limited on how much fluid you can drink
  • You may be given medicine through an IV to treat imbalances of water and minerals

If your kidneys don’t start working again or if you have chronic kidney disease, you will need dialysis. Dialysis uses a machine to do the work of your kidneys. It removes waste products and extra water from your blood and can be life saving. Dialysis usually needs to be done several times a week. Dialysis can be done in a hospital, a dialysis center, or at home for some people with chronic kidney disease.

If you have acute kidney failure, you may need dialysis for a few days or weeks. There is a risk your kidneys could be permanently damaged.

If you have chronic kidney disease, the kidney failure cannot be cured. You will be on dialysis the rest of your life unless you have a kidney transplant.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Take all medicines exactly as directed by your provider. Ask your provider what medicines you need to avoid because they could hurt your kidneys.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

You can get more information from:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-07
Last reviewed: 2014-04-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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