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Kidney failure

10-minute read

Key facts

  • Kidney failure, also called renal failure, is when your kidneys no longer work properly.
  • Kidney failure can be either acute or chronic.
  • Acute kidney failure is often called acute kidney injury. Acute kidney failure (injury) is usually short term and your kidney function will recover over time.
  • Chronic kidney failure is often called chronic kidney disease. Chronic kidney failure can be treated with dialysis, a kidney transplant or supportive care.

What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure, also called renal failure, is when your kidneys no longer work properly.

Your kidneys' main job is to clean your blood and make urine (wee). When the kidneys do not work properly, waste and fluid builds up in your body.

There are 2 main types of kidney failure:

  1. acute kidney failure (also called acute renal failure, or acute kidney injury)
  2. chronic kidney disease

Acute kidney failure

Acute kidney failure is the short-term loss of kidney function. It can develop quickly — over a few hours or days. It can be due to:

  • an injury or illness — such as severe dehydration, or an infection
  • drugs or poisons

In most cases, your kidney function will recover over time — usually fairly quickly over a period of days. In other cases, acute kidney failure can cause permanent damage and lead to chronic kidney disease.

Chronic kidney failure

Chronic kidney disease is when your kidneys have been damaged in a way that can't be reversed. Chronic kidney disease takes months or years to develop.

If chronic kidney disease progresses, it can lead to chronic kidney failure.

What are the symptoms of kidney failure?

Symptoms of acute kidney failure

Signs and symptoms of acute kidney failure can include:

Symptoms of chronic kidney disease

Signs and symptoms of chronic kidney disease may include:

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your doctor.

What causes kidney failure?

The are several causes of both acute and chronic renal failure.

Causes of acute kidney failure

Acute kidney failure can be caused by:

  • damaged kidneys — due to disease, infections or toxins
  • dehydration
  • trauma (physical damage) to the kidney — after major surgery, or an accident
  • blocked ureters (kidney drainage tubes) — this may be from kidney stones, a tumour, or an enlarged prostate
  • some medicines

Causes of chronic kidney failure

In Australia, the most common conditions causing chronic kidney failure are:

  • diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • inflammation in the kidney (glomerulonephritis)

When should I see my doctor?

It's important to see your doctor if you have symptoms such as:

  • a build-up of fluid in your body
  • the amount of urine you make decrease

Kidney disease often doesn't have any symptoms. It's sometimes called the 'silent disease'.

But there are certain risk factors that can increase your risk of chronic kidney disease. These include:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • smoking
  • diabetes

If you have chronic kidney disease you should see your doctor at least once a year.

If you have risk factors for kidney disease, it's important to get a regular Kidney Health Check. This involves 3 tests:

  1. a blood test
  2. a urine test
  3. a blood pressure test

If you have diabetes or high blood pressure you should have a Kidney Health Check every year.

If you're a smoker or have a family history of kidney disease you should have a Kidney Health Check every 2 years.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is kidney failure diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you. They will also ask about your health in general. Your doctor will likely recommend test such as:

How is kidney failure treated?

Treatment for kidney failure will depend on the type of kidney failure and the cause.

Acute kidney failure

In acute kidney failure your doctor will:

  • investigate and treat the cause
  • prescribe medicine to help your kidneys recover
  • monitor your urine (wee) production and kidney function

Some people will need short-term dialysis treatment to help their kidneys recover.

Chronic kidney failure

There are 2 main treatment options for chronic kidney failure:

  1. Dialysis — removes waste and extra fluid from your blood through either haemodialysis or peritoneal dialysis.
  2. Kidney transplant — where you receive a healthy kidney from a donor.

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

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Illustration showing how a haemodialysis works.
A haemodialysis uses a machine to remove waste and extra fluid from your blood.
Illustration showing how a peritoneal dialysis works.
A dialysis using the abdomen to remove waste and extra fluid from your body.

Can kidney failure be prevented?

It's important to be aware of your risk factors — if you know you are at risk of kidney disease, you can have your kidneys checked regularly.

Most cases of chronic kidney disease are mild, and treatment aims to stop your kidneys from deteriorating (getting worse).

If you have chronic kidney disease, medical treatments and lifestyle changes can delay or prevent progression to kidney failure. They can also help control symptoms. This might include things like:

  • if you are a smoker — stop smoking
  • controlling any high blood pressure
  • controlling any diabetes
  • treating any other conditions that may affect your kidneys
  • avoiding medicines that can affect your kidneys

Medicines that can affect your kidneys

If you have chronic kidney disease you should avoid:

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are unsure if a medicine is safe for you to take. You should also check with them before taking:

  • vitamins or supplements — they may contain ingredients harmful to your kidneys
  • herbal or complementary medicines — they may not be suitable if you have kidney disease or may interfere with other medicines

Complications of kidney failure

In some people, acute kidney failure can cause permanent damage. This can put you at a higher risk of developing chronic kidney disease.

Resources and support

Watch a short video to understand the basics of kidney disease. This video is also available in: Greek, Italian, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Visit Kidney Health Australia for more information and resources.

Kidney Health Australia also has resources for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Support for carers

People with kidney failure often need carers. For carers' services in your state or territory, visit Carers Australia or call Carer Gateway on 1800 422 737.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2023

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