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Kidney failure

4-minute read

What is 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.

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.

What are the 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, breathlessnesshigh blood pressure that can’t be controlled and night-time urination. If you notice any such symptoms, see your doctor.

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 medicines can also bring on acute kidney failure — these include antibiotics, chemotherapy, imaging dyes, and medicines 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).

How is kidney failure treated?

There are 3 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 (peritoneal 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 for advice on the right amount of fluid to drink and the right diet to follow.

You can buy a book about living with kidney failure from Kidney Health Australia.

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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?

There is plenty you can do to help keep your kidneys healthy.

Be aware of your risk factors — if you know you are at risk of kidney disease, you can have your kidneys checked 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.

Resources and support

Visit Kidney Health Australia for information and resources.

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

You can read about diabetes and kidney health on the Diabetes Australia website.

Support for carers

People with kidney failure often require carers because of incapacity from their condition. For carers services in your state or territory, visit Carers Australia.

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

Last reviewed: January 2021


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