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Kidney disease

Kidney disease (also called renal disease) is a general term for when the kidneys are damaged and don’t function as they should.

Kidney disease can be treated once diagnosed. However, in many cases it goes undetected until serious damage has been done, so it’s important to seek medical advice if you notice any symptoms.

What do your kidneys do?

You have two kidneys, one either side of your backbone, just above the small of your back. Each kidney is about the size of a closed fist.

The main role of the kidneys is to filter your blood to remove waste. As well, your kidneys help control blood pressure, produce red blood cells, and keep your bones strong.

What types of kidney disease are there?

There are several types of kidney disease. These include:

  • kidney stones - rock-hard crystals that form inside your kidneys
  • polycystic kidney disease - an inherited condition causing cysts in the kidneys
  • diabetic kidney disease - kidney damage caused by diabetes
  • glomerulonephritis - inflammation of the kidney’s filters (glomeruli)
  • kidney infection - urinary tract infection affecting the kidneys
  • kidney cancer - this is rare.

If you have ongoing kidney damage, it is called chronic kidney disease. If kidney damage happens quickly - from an accident or infection, for example - it is called acute kidney failure. Though often short-lived, this can still cause lasting kidney damage.

What happens if your kidneys aren’t working properly?

When your kidneys don’t work as they should, wastes and fluids build up inside the body. The first signs of this can be quite vague, like feeling tired. Later symptoms can include changes in your urine, nausea and appetite loss, itchiness, swollen or numb hands and feet, darkened skin and muscle cramps.

Kidney disease can lead to other problems like heart disease and high blood pressure, and eventually to complete kidney failure, so getting treatment early is vital.

Last reviewed: February 2017

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