The kidneys filter the blood and remove extra water and waste from the body. When something causes the kidneys to work less efficiently, kidney failure can result.

Various conditions can affect how the kidneys work.

In this article, learn about the different types of kidney failure, as well as the stages, symptoms, causes, treatment options, and prevention methods.

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According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), kidney failure occurs when a person has less than 15% kidney function.

When a person’s kidneys reach the stage where they need dialysis or a kidney transplant, a doctor will diagnose end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

Kidney failure can result from genetic conditions or damage to the kidneys. The kidneys perform functions that are essential for the whole body. For this reason, kidney failure can affect a person’s overall health and well-being.

Types of kidney failure

There are two types of kidney failure: acute and chronic. The sections below will discuss these in more detail.

Acute kidney failure

Acute kidney failure (AKF), otherwise known as acute kidney injury or acute renal failure, comes on suddenly, typically within a few hours or days.

It can result from an infection, trauma to the kidney, or decreased blood flow in the area. It can also occur due to a blockage, such as a kidney stone, or very high blood pressure.

In many cases, treatment will lead to a full recovery. However, it can be life-threatening without prompt medical attention. At least 12% to 15% of people may need long-term dialysis.

Chronic kidney failure

Chronic kidney disease (CKD), also known as chronic renal failure or chronic renal disease, refers to kidney damage that occurs over time.

Diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease often contribute to this damage. In some cases, genetic factors play a role.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, there are five stages of kidney disease, and kidney failure is stage 5.

What are the stages of renal failure?

The signs and symptoms of kidney failure are similar for acute and chronic kidney failure, but how they quickly they appear is different.

In AKF, symptoms appear suddenly. In CKD, symptoms develop slowly and typically appear after long-term damage has occurred.

Symptoms of kidney failure include:

Various types of injuries and diseases can give rise to kidney failure. Certain conditions might cause AKF, while others may lead to CKD.

Common causes of AKF include:

  • low blood flow to the kidneys
  • inflammation
  • sudden high blood pressure
  • blockages, sometimes due to kidney stones
  • medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antibiotics, diuretics, and ACE inhibitors can lead to acute kidney failure

Common causes of CKD include:

  • high blood sugar
  • high blood pressure
  • kidney infections
  • polycystic kidney disease

Although anyone can experience kidney failure, certain factors may increase a person’s risk of developing the condition.

They include:

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To diagnose kidney disease, a health professional will likely perform a blood test and a urine test.

A blood test measures the creatinine level. If creatinine levels are high, the kidneys may not be fully functioning. Doctors may also check eGFR (estimated glomerular filtration rate) to investigate kidney function. Other blood tests include:

  • a test for electrolyte levels
  • a complete blood count
  • a test for inflammatory markers
  • an autoimmune work up

A urine test checks for albumin, a protein that may pass through the urine if the kidneys are damaged.

Doctors may also recommend imaging tests.

Treatment for kidney failure often includes the following options:


Dialysis involves using a dialyzer machine, which performs the healthy function of the kidneys. The machine filters water and waste from the blood.

A type of dialysis called peritoneal dialysis uses the lining of a person’s abdomen to filter the blood.

After a dialysis nurse has trained them for 1–2 weeks, a person can perform this dialysis at home, work, or when traveling.

Dialysis does not cure kidney failure, but it may help improve a person’s quality of life.

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Kidney transplant

If a person’s kidney function is 20% or less, they may be eligible for a kidney transplant. Donated kidneys can come from a living person or a deceased donor.

After receiving the new kidney, the person will need to take medication to make sure that the body does not reject it.

The transplant matching process is lengthy, and not everyone is eligible for a transplant.

Clinical trials

Clinical trials are also an option for some people with CKD.

Various trials are available that evaluate medications, treatments, and protocols for kidney failure.

Treatment plans

A treatment plan will be comprehensive and may include:

  • self-monitoring for signs of worsening kidney function
  • a renal diet, as prescribed by a doctor or nutritionist
  • limiting or eliminating alcohol, which causes the kidneys to work harder
  • regular exercise

A person may also need treatment for the complications of kidney disease. For example, to treat anemia, a doctor may prescribe ESAs (erythropoiesis-stimulating agents). They may also suggest iron, vitamin B, or folic acid supplements.

Can doctors cure kidney failure?

When the kidneys do not function properly, this affects other organs in the body. As kidney failure progresses, other complications can develop.

They include:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • bone loss
  • anemia
  • metabolic issues, such as electrolyte abnormalities and acid-base imbalance

Untreated kidney failure can be life-threatening.

What support is available for people living with kidney failure?

Various organizations can support those with kidney failure. They include:

See our dedicated article on ESRD and Medicare: Coverage, eligibility, and more

Certain measures may help decrease a person’s risk of developing kidney failure.

Examples include:

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If a person experiences any symptoms of kidney failure, they should consult a doctor. People with a family history of kidney failure can also ask about monitoring.

Anyone with signs of AKF needs urgent medical attention.

The sooner treatment for kidney failure starts, the better the outcome.

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Here are some questions people often ask about kidney failure.

How long can you live with kidney failure?

This will depend on how soon a person receives treatment, which treatment they have, and other factors. Without treatment, kidney failure can be fatal.

According to the American Kidney Fund:

  • Dialysis enables people to live another 5 to 10 years on average.
  • A transplant from a deceased donor lasts 10 to 15 years on average.
  • A transplant from a live donor lasts 15 to 20 years on average.

However, the outlook can vary widely between individuals.

What happens if your kidneys fail?

The kidneys support many essential bodily functions. If the kidneys no longer work properly, a range of symptoms will occur throughout the body. In most cases, the symptoms appear gradually. In others, they can appear suddenly and rapidly become life-threatening.

How do you treat early kidney disease?

Kidney failure refers to the final stages of kidney disease. In stage 1 kidney disease, a doctor will likely advise on lifestyle tips to protect the kidneys and work with the individual to manage their blood sugar and blood pressure. They may recommend medications to help protect the kidneys.

What are the first warning signs of kidney failure?

Often, a person does not know they have kidney failure until the later stages. As kidney damage progresses, they may notice changes such as reduced urine output, swelling in the hands and feet, and headaches, and other symptoms.

The outlook for someone with kidney failure will depend on whether the condition is chronic or acute, among other individual factors.

Often, AKF responds to treatment, and kidney function returns. However, some people will go on to need dialysis in the long term.

CKD is not reversible, but treatment can help manage it. Undergoing a kidney transplant may also improve the outlook.

Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys can no longer adequately filter blood and remove waste from the body.

The condition can occur suddenly or develop slowly over time. Kidney failure can lead to various complications, including anemia, bone loss, and heart disease.

Usually, treatment involves dialysis and making lifestyle modifications.