What happens when kidneys fail?

Kidneys can fail rapidly, over a period of a few days, or slowly over many months or years.

Acute kidney failure is the sudden loss of kidney function; it can occur for a number of reasons, such as trauma, shock, loss of blood flow to the kidney, obstruction of the urinary tract, ingestion of poisons or drugs toxic to the kidney.

Chronic Kidney Disease refers to the progressive damage and loss of kidney function that occurs slowly over time. CKD is divided into 5 stages, beginning with Stage 1, when kidney function is relatively normal, and progressing to Stage 5, when kidney function dips below 15%. In the early stages, there may be few signs that anything is wrong. By the time symptoms of kidney disease appear – exhaustion; swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or face; back pain; unexplained high blood pressure; changes in urination frequency and color – the kidneys may be seriously impaired. When patients reach Stage 5 or end stage kidney disease, the kidneys are unable to eliminate toxic waste products and water from the body; patients no longer urinate or produce a lot less urine. A kidney transplant or life-saving dialysis treatments become necessary.

As kidneys fail, the major biological systems of the body are affected. Complications of chronic kidney disease include anemia, nerve damage in the arms and legs, fluid build-up around the lungs, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, stroke, hyperparathyroidism, malnutrition, seizures, itchy skin, and weakened bones. Because the kidneys can’t get rid of minerals in the blood, patients need frequent lab work to determine how well dialysis is cleaning the blood.

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