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Acute Renal Failure


Topic Overview

Picture of the urinary system

Is this topic for you?

This topic provides information about sudden kidney failure. If you are looking for information about long-term kidney disease, see the topic Chronic Kidney Disease.

What is acute renal failure?

Acute renal failure (also called acute kidney injury) means that your kidneysClick here to see an illustration. have suddenly stopped working. Your kidneys remove waste products and help balance water and salt and other minerals (electrolytes) in your blood. When your kidneys stop working, waste products, fluids, and electrolytes build up in your body. This can cause problems that can be deadly.

What causes acute renal failure?

Acute renal failure has three main causes:

  • A sudden, serious drop in blood flow to the kidneys. Heavy blood loss, an injury, or a bad infection called sepsis can reduce blood flow to the kidneys. Not enough fluid in the body (dehydration) also can harm the kidneys.
  • Damage from some medicines, poisons, or infections. Most people don't have any kidney problems from taking medicines. But people who have serious, long-term health problems are more likely than other people to have a kidney problem from medicines. Examples of medicines that can sometimes harm the kidneys include:
  • A sudden blockage that stops urine from flowing out of the kidneys. Kidney stones, a tumor, an injury, or an enlarged prostate gland can cause a blockage.

You have a greater chance of getting acute renal failure if:

  • You are an older adult.
  • You have a long-term health problem such as kidney or liver disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, or obesity.
  • You are already very ill and are in the hospital or intensive care (ICU). Heart or belly surgery or a bone marrow transplant can make you more likely to have kidney failure.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of acute renal failure may include:

  • Little or no urine when you urinate.
  • Swelling, especially in your legs and feet.
  • Not feeling like eating.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Feeling confused, anxious and restless, or sleepy.
  • Pain in the back just below the rib cage. This is called flank pain.

Some people may not have any symptoms. And for people who are already quite ill, the problem that's causing the kidney failure may be causing other symptoms.

How is acute renal failure diagnosed?

Acute renal failure is most often diagnosed during a hospital stay for another cause. If you are already in the hospital, tests done for other problems may find your kidney failure.

If you're not in the hospital but have symptoms of kidney failure, your doctor will ask about your symptoms, what medicines you take, and what tests you have had. Your symptoms can help point to the cause of your kidney problem.

Blood and urine tests can check how well your kidneys are working. A chemistry screen can show if you have normal levels of sodium (salt), potassium, and calcium. You may also have an ultrasound. This imaging test lets your doctor see a picture of your kidneys.

How is it treated?

Your doctor or a kidney specialist (nephrologist) will try to treat the problem that is causing your kidneys to fail. Treatment can vary widely, depending on the cause. For example, your doctor may need to restore blood flow to the kidneys, stop any medicines that may be causing the problem, or remove or bypass a blockage in the urinary tract.

At the same time, the doctor will try to:

  • Stop wastes from building up in your body. You may have dialysis. This treatment uses a machine to do the work of your kidneys until they recover. It will help you feel better.
  • Prevent other problems. You may take antibiotics to prevent or treat infections. You also may take other medicines to get rid of extra fluid and keep your body's minerals in balance.

You can help yourself heal by taking your medicines as your doctor tells you to. You also may need to follow a special diet to keep your kidneys from working too hard. You may need to limit sodium, potassium, and phosphorus. A dietitian can help you plan meals.

Does acute renal failure cause lasting problems?

About half the time, doctors can fix the problems that cause kidney failure, and the treatment takes a few days or weeks. These people's kidneys will work well enough for them to live normal lives.

But other people may have permanent kidney damage that leads to chronic kidney disease. A small number of them will need to have regular dialysis or a kidney transplant. Older people and those who are very sick from other health problems may not get better. People who die usually do so because of the health problem that caused their kidneys to fail.

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