Renal Failure

What is Renal Failure?

Renal Failure (also called acute kidney failure) occurs when the kidneys are unable to filter the waste products from your blood stream.  This causes waste to accumulate and the chemical makeup of your blood becomes altered and out of balance.  Renal failure happens quickly – as fast as over a period of a few hours sometimes – and it is most common in people that are already critically ill. It can be fatal and requires fast and intensive treatment.  In some cases it can be reversible.

What are the Symptoms of Renal Failure?

Renal failure may not have any symptoms and sometimes is detected when lab tests are done for unrelated reasons.  If symptoms occur they can include shortness of breath and fatigue.  Those with renal failure may also experience drowsiness, and confusion.  A decrease in the amount of urine (but not in frequency) and fluid retention in the legs, ankles and feet are common symptoms as well.  Chest pain and seizures or even coma may occur in more severe cases.

Renal Failure Causes

1. The blood flow to the kidneys is inhibited because of disease or conditions, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Liver failure
  • Infection
  • Blood or fluid loss
  • Anaphylaxis (acute allergic reaction)
  • Burns
  • Dehydration

2. The kidneys are damaged by disease, disorders, medications, or toxins, such as:

  • Multiple myeloma (plasma cell cancer)
  • Scleroderma (skin and connective tissue diseases)
  • Glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the glomeruli, which are the kidney filters)
  • Lupus (disorder of the immune system that causes glomerulonephritis)
  • Hemolytic uremic syndrome
  • Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura
  • Vasculitis (inflamed blood vessels)
  • Blood clots in the kidneys’ veins and arteries
  • Cholesterol blockages from fatty deposits that block blood flow
  • Prescription medications, including blood pressure medications, chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, and some drugs that treat osteoporosis and hypercalcemia
  • Over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen, and ibuprofen
  • Cocaine
  • Alcohol

3. The urine is unable to remove waste from the kidneys when the ureters (drainage tubes) become blocked because of diseases or disorders, including:

  • Cancer of the bladder
  • Cancer of the cervix
  • Cancer of the colon
  • Cancer of the prostate
  • Urinary tract blood clots
  • An enlarged prostate
  • Kidney stones
  • Nerve damage to the bladder nerves

How is Renal Failure Treated?

A hospital stay is part of any renal failure treatment.  Many people who have renal failure are already in the hospital.  Sometimes recovery can take place in your own home. Part of treatment may include treating the complications that may occur.

Mild forms of dialysis represent the initial measure which is necessary to remove waste products and unwanted water from the blood in patients who suffer from an acute kidney failure (acute kidney injury) while hemodialysis is necessary for patients with a chronic condition derived, for instance, from autoimmune diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure”¦ in order to avoid edema and electrolyte imbalance.

There will be treatments to help balance out the amount of fluid in your blood stream.  This can include intravenous fluids if you are lacking fluid or diuretics to expel extra fluids. Sometimes when renal failure occurs, potassium is not filtered from the blood so calcium, sodium, or glucose may be used to decrease high levels of potassium. An infusion of calcium may be recommended if your calcium levels have dropped too low.  Finally, dialysis will help remove the toxins from your blood stream.  This involves the use of a machine that pumps blood out of your body, creating a kind of artificial kidney. The blood is filtered and then returned to your body.

Renal Failure Prevention

Preventing renal failure is not always possible, but the best course of prevention is maintaining kidney health. A healthy lifestyle can help keep the kidneys functioning properly, such as making good food choices, limiting salt intake, quitting smoking, following a doctor-recommended balanced diet, and limiting alcohol intake. Losing weight if you’re obese and exercising regularly are also important components of a healthy lifestyle that maintains kidney health. Medication should be taken only as recommended, even over-the-counter formulations, as excessive use may damage the kidneys. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and pre-existing kidney problems increase the susceptibility to renal failure when medications are taken improperly.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
December 07, 2017