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Kidney failure

Kidney failure, also called renal failure, is when your kidneys no longer function properly and cannot do their job anymore, that is, to get rid of waste products in the blood. Kidney failure can come on suddenly (acute kidney failure), or after years of kidney disease (chronic kidney failure).

When your kidneys fail, dialysis or kidney transplant is necessary for survival.

What is kidney failure?

A sudden drop in kidney function is called acute kidney failure. This develops quickly over a few hours or days, and mostly happens in people who are already critically ill.

More commonly, kidney failure happens as the final stage of chronic kidney disease. Called ‘end stage kidney disease,’ this is when about 90% of kidney function has been lost.

Support for carers

People with kidney failure often require carers because of incapacity from their condition.

Are you a carer or helping someone out?

Carers are everyday people who provide unpaid and ongoing care and support to someone they know who has a disability, mental illness, drug or alcohol dependency, chronic condition, terminal illness or who is frail.

Learn more about practical, financial and emotional support and services that are available for carers. For carers services in your state or territory visit Carers Australia.

What causes kidney failure?

Acute kidney failure most commonly affects people who are already hospitalised because they are very ill. It can be caused by:

  • slow blood flow to the kidneys (for example, due to an accident, burns or dehydration)
  • damaged kidneys (for example, due to disease or toxins)
  • blocked kidney drainage tubes (ureters) (for example, from kidney stones or tumours).

Some medications can also bring on acute kidney failure – these include antibiotics, chemotherapy, imaging dyes, and drugs for blood pressure and osteoporosis.

In Australia, the most common diseases causing chronic kidney failure are diabetes, high blood pressure or inflammation in the kidney (glomerulonephritis).

Signs and symptoms of kidney failure

Symptoms of acute kidney failure can include decreased amount of urine, fluid retention, confusion, nausea and chest pain. Symptoms of chronic kidney failure may include tiredness, weakness, nausea, vomiting, itching, restless legs, breathlessness, high blood pressure that can’t be controlled and night-time urination. If you notice any such symptoms, see your doctor.

Kidney failure treatment

There are three options for the treatment of kidney failure:

  • kidney transplant, in which a diseased kidney is replaced by a healthy one from a donor
  • dialysis, which uses a machine (haemodialysis) or other parts of the body (abdominal dialysis) to remove waste and extra fluid from your blood
  • supportive care, which means providing all health care and support possible, but not attempting to cure the kidney failure. In this case the person with kidney failure will eventually die.

You can also see a dietitian and getting advice on the right amount of fluid to drink and the right diet to follow.

Preventing kidney failure

You can help keep your kidneys as healthy as possible by maintaining a healthy weight, eating well, not smoking, keeping a check on your blood pressure, keeping within your glucose targets if you have diabetes, and exercising regularly.

If you have chronic kidney disease, medical treatments and lifestyle changes can delay or prevent its progression to kidney failure, and also help control symptoms.

Last reviewed: February 2017

Need more information?

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Non‐dialysis supportive care is the treatment choice for kidney failure when an individual has decided that the options of dialysis and transplant are not appropriate for them.

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Translations | Kidney Health Australia

Kidney Health Australia, recognising a need in the community, has produced some simplified versions of our key fact sheets in several languages: Arabic, Burmese, Chinese (Cantonese & Mandarin), French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Kirundi, Japanese, Korean, Macedonian, Maltese, Samoan, Spanish, Tongan and Vietnamese

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