What is dialysis?
Dialysis is a way to clean your blood if your kidneys are no longer working properly.
The kidneys act as filters for your body. They remove waste from the blood and get rid of it via your urine (wee). If your kidneys are not working properly, waste can build up in your blood.
There are 2 main types of dialysis:
- peritoneal dialysis
Haemodialysis treatment involves taking your blood from your body and pumping it through a dialysis machine for cleaning. This usually happens 3 days a week. Each treatment lasts for 4 to 5 hours.
Peritoneal dialysis uses the lining in your abdomen (tummy) called the peritoneum to act as a natural filter for your blood. This treatment happens up to 4 times a day.
Both haemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis are free in Australia.
When is dialysis needed?
Dialysis is most often needed because of kidney failure.
Acute kidney failure can sometimes happen over a short period of time (days or weeks). It can be the result of a serious illness or accident. Dialysis is sometimes a short-term treatment.
More commonly, kidney failure is the result of chronic kidney disease. This is where your kidney function gets worse over many years.
Dialysis usually starts when you find it hard to keep up with your normal life. This is when your kidneys are working at about 10% of how they should be working.
Dialysis treatment must be done for the rest of your life, unless you have a kidney transplant.
How does dialysis work?
During haemodialysis your blood goes through a special machine called a ‘dialyser’. The machine removes waste and extra fluid from your blood before pumping it back into your body. You can do dialysis at a renal unit or in your home.
The blood leaves and then returns to your body through a needle, usually in your arm, neck, or leg.
During peritoneal dialysis fluid is pumped into a space in your abdomen (tummy) called the peritoneal cavity. The fluid enters and leaves through a catheter. A catheter is a thin, soft tube, about 30cm long that stays in place all the time.
Waste from your blood moves into the fluid in your peritoneal cavity. It is then removed from your body.
Peritoneal dialysis can be done at home each day either:
- manually (continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis)
- by a machine (automated peritoneal dialysis)
Life on dialysis
Although starting dialysis is a life changing event, it is possible to still have an active life. However, this may be different to your life before dialysis.
The type of dialysis that is right for you will depend on:
- how you live your life
- your vision
- your dexterity
- whether you have a carer
- where you live
Dialysis is an ongoing treatment. It's important that you don't miss a dialysis session.
Dialysis can often happen at home and overnight. Depending on your needs, some dialysis may be needed during the day.
This allows most people to continue to:
- be physically active
- maintain a balanced diet
- keep social engagements
- have intimate relationships
What is supportive care?
Supportive care is available to everyone with kidney failure.
Supportive care aims to help control the symptoms that you have so that you can enjoy a good quality of life.
A multidisciplinary care team will support you. They will give you support with:
- your medicines
- dietary advice
- symptom management such as pain, itch, and nausea
- deciding and planning for end-of-life care
Supportive care can also be an alternative to dialysis or kidney transplantation.
You might choose supportive care if you:
- don’t want dialysis treatment
- can’t have dialysis treatment
- stop dialysis treatment
- want to let life progress naturally
Resources and support
You can read more about kidney disease and dialysis on the Kidney Health Australia website.
You can call Kidney Health Australia on 1800 454 363 to get support around your kidney health.
You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222. A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: July 2022