Nephritis is a condition in which the nephrons, the functional units of the kidneys, become inflamed. This inflammation, which is also known as glomerulonephritis, can adversely affect kidney function.
The kidneys are bean-shaped organs that filter the blood circulating the body to remove excess water and waste products from it.
There are many types of nephritis with a range of causes. While some types occur suddenly, others develop as part of a chronic condition and require ongoing management.
This article explores the types, causes, and symptoms of nephritis, as well as treatment options.
There are several different types of nephritis, including:
Lupus and rarer disorders, such as vasculitides and granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), can also lead to acute inflammation of the kidneys. A person with these conditions will require prompt medical attention during a flare-up to reduce kidney damage.
Lupus nephritis: Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues in the body.
Over half of all individuals with a lupus diagnosis eventually develop lupus nephritis. This occurs when the immune system attacks the kidneys.
The symptoms of lupus nephritis include:
- foamy urine
- high blood pressure
- swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet
People may also notice symptoms in other parts of the body. These symptoms may include joint problems, fever, and rashes.
The severity of lupus can vary between patients. Although the disease sometimes goes into remission, the condition can become serious. It is vital for anyone experiencing symptoms of lupus nephritis to seek prompt medical attention to limit further kidney damage.
Alport syndrome, or hereditary nephritis: This disease can lead to kidney failure, as well as vision and hearing problems. Alport syndrome is passed on in the genes, and it is usually more severe in men.
Chronic glomerulonephritis: This form of nephritis develops slowly and causes few symptoms in its early stages. As with acute glomerulonephritis, this condition can cause severe kidney damage and kidney failure. It may run in families or develop after a sudden disease.
IgA nephropathy: This is one of the more common forms of nephritis. It develops when IgA antibody deposits build up in the kidneys and cause inflammation.
The immune system develops antibodies to combat harmful substances and organisms that enter the body. People with IgA neuropathy have defective IgA antibodies.
Doctors do not often find IgA nephropathy in young people, as the early symptoms are easy to miss. People can treat this condition with blood pressure medications.
Interstitial nephritis: Often developing very rapidly, this form of nephritis usually occurs due to infection or a particular medication. It affects the part of the kidney called the interstitium, which is a fluid-filled space.
If a doctor takes the affected individual off the problematic medication quickly, a full recovery is possible in a few weeks. However, damage can sometimes accumulate to the point of kidney failure.
There are many different causes of nephritis. In some cases, the cause may not be clear.
Nephritis and kidney disease often seem to run in families, which suggests a possible genetic component. Some infections, such as HIV and hepatitis B or C, can also cause nephritis.
In some cases, kidney damage can occur as a result of medications, such as antibiotics. This damage can lead to nephritis. Taking too many pain relievers, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or diuretic pills can also cause this condition.
The two kidneys are bean-shaped, fist-sized organs that sit just beneath the ribs on either side of the spine. They remove impurities and extra water from the blood, filtering about 150 quarts of blood a day.
Each kidney consists of thousands of structures called nephrons, in which the blood filtering takes place. In each nephron, a two-step cleaning process separates necessary nutrients from waste products.
A filter called the glomerulus catches blood cells and protein, sending water and waste to a second filter, called a tubule. The tubule captures minerals and extra protein. After that, waste materials leave the body in the urine.
In people with nephritis, both the tubules and nearby tissues become inflamed, which can lead to kidney damage.
Damaged kidneys are unable to function at full capacity. Waste builds up and causes serious health problems. If the condition is severe or persistent enough, it can result in kidney failure.
The most important risk factors for kidney disease are:
The symptoms of nephritis are rarely severe in the early stages. The following signs may indicate that a person has this condition:
- changes in urinating habits
- swelling anywhere in the body, especially the hands, feet, ankles, and face
- changes in urine color
- foamy urine
- blood in the urine
When to see a doctor
Urine that contains blood will appear brown or pink. Anyone with this sign should visit a doctor as soon as possible.
It is also best to seek medical attention for any other symptoms involving the urine. Early treatment can prevent permanent kidney damage and the more severe complications of nephritis.
In some cases, a doctor may detect nephritis during a routine blood or urine test.
Finding protein in the urine can indicate that the kidneys are not working correctly. A blood test that measures a waste product in the blood called creatinine can also provide information on the health of the kidneys.
However, a biopsy is the best way to check for nephritis. For this procedure, a doctor will remove a piece of the kidney with a needle and send it to a laboratory for analysis.
The treatment for nephritis may vary according to the cause and type.
Acute nephritis sometimes resolves without treatment. However, it usually requires medication and special procedures that remove excess fluids and dangerous proteins.
Treating chronic nephritis typically involves regular kidney check-ups and blood pressure monitoring. Doctors may prescribe water pills to control blood pressure and reduce any swelling.
Medications that prevent the immune system from attacking the kidneys can also be beneficial in some cases.
Doctors may also refer an individual with kidney infection to a dietitian, who can advise them on what to eat to protect their kidneys. A suitable diet will typically be lower in protein, salt, and potassium.
Although it is not always possible to prevent nephritis, certain lifestyle practices can reduce the risk for many people. These practices include:
- maintaining a healthy weight
- quitting smoking
- keeping blood pressure and blood sugar within healthy limits
- exercising regularly
Eating a nutritious, balanced diet can also help protect kidney health.
Acute episodes of nephritis often respond well to treatment, but people may sometimes develop chronic glomerulonephritis years later.
Although nephritis may not always be curable, proper treatment can keep the condition at bay and protect the kidneys.
It is essential to follow the doctor’s instructions carefully to prevent and limit kidney damage.
If kidney failure occurs, a person may require dialysis or a kidney transplant. Dialysis is a medical procedure that maintains safe levels of chemicals in the blood by mimicking the way that healthy kidneys remove waste and excess fluid from it.
Nephritis is the inflammation of the kidneys. It has a range of causes and can be acute or chronic. Early symptoms may include changes in the color of the urine and swelling of the hands and feet.
Anyone who notices changes in their urine should visit a doctor to check for kidney damage. Without treatment, this can lead to kidney failure.