Anemia in chronic kidney disease (CKD) causes the body to produce too few red blood cells. People with advanced kidney disease tend to develop this condition, and it can increase the risk of negative outcomes.

Anemia is a category of diseases that reduce hemoglobin, hematocrit, or red blood cell count. This reduces the ability of the red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, potentially causing a wide range of symptoms, ranging from fatigue to organ failure and death.

People who have anemia in CKD typically have normal hemoglobin and hematocrit levels, but their bodies do not produce enough red blood cells. The kidneys produce erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. When the kidneys fail, the production of EPO often declines, decreasing red blood cell production.

Read on to learn about anemia in CKD, including causes, risk factors, and diagnosis. This article also discusses how a doctor might diagnose and treat the condition.

Share on Pinterest
xu wu/Getty Images

According to a 2021 review published in Advances in Therapy, anemia becomes more common as kidney disease progresses.

The prevalence across all stages of the disease is 14%. The figure rises to 17.4% in stage 3, 50.3% in stage 4, and 53.4% in stage 5.

The symptoms of anemia in CKD are the same as those of anemia from other causes. They include:

The kidneys play an important role in producing red blood cells. They produce the hormone EPO, which tells the body to produce more red blood cells when there is not enough oxygen. But in CKD, EPO levels are lower than they should be, suppressing the production of EPO.

This results in normal-sized red blood cells that carry a typical amount of hemoglobin. But, because there are fewer red blood cells than there should be, hemoglobin levels drop below normal. This makes it harder to distribute enough oxygen throughout the body.

Anemia is a risk factor for organ failure, so it may accelerate the progression of CKD and lead to kidney failure.

What type of anemia is CKD associated with?

Like people without CKD and those with other medical conditions, people with CKD can have many types of anemia.

However, the type of anemia that is a direct result of CKD is normocytic, normochromic, hypoproliferative anemia. This means that the size and color of the red blood cells are normal, and they usually carry normal levels of hemoglobin.

CKD is a significant risk factor for anemia. According to a 2020 review published in the Ethiopian Journal of Health Science, the following factors can also increase the risk of anemia in CKD:

Blood tests, especially a complete blood count, can usually help doctors diagnose anemia in CKD. Doctors may suggest testing regularly or based on a person’s symptoms.

During these tests, healthcare professionals will examine a person’s blood and assess the number, size, and health of the red blood cells.

A doctor may also recommend other tests, such as thyroid tests, to rule out other potential causes of anemia.

Learn more about blood testing.

Anemia is an independent risk factor for a worse outlook and death due to CKD. Anemia can speed up the progression of kidney disease and increase the risk of complications such as:

  • increased oxygen demand
  • left ventricular hypertrophy (thickening of one of the pumping chambers of the heart)
  • cardiovascular disease

Treatment for anemia in CKD has two components:

Improving kidney function

This may involve:

  • drugs to treat kidney disease
  • lifestyle changes
  • diabetes management, if applicable

Some people will need dialysis to replace kidney function or a kidney transplant.

Reducing anemia

Erythropoiesis-stimulating agents (ESAs) are drugs that can increase the production of EPO. These medications can improve symptoms of anemia, especially if a person also takes iron supplements. However, ESAs can have side effects such as:

A doctor can discuss the risks and benefits before prescribing ESAs.

For people undergoing dialysis, a doctor may recommend ESAs along with dialysis treatments. Kidney disease on its own can increase blood pressure, and ESAs may also have this effect. Therefore, a person taking these medications in the long term may need additional treatment, such as blood pressure-lowering drugs.

Dietary changes may help prevent or manage anemia. People with CKD should consult a registered dietitian, if possible.

In some cases, iron supplements may also help prevent anemia. However, since many drugs can affect kidney function, people with CKD should avoid taking medications and supplements without first talking with a doctor.

Because anemia becomes more common as CKD progresses, it is important to manage CKD as much as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment are beneficial.

Anemia is a relatively common symptom of chronic kidney disease (CKD). It increases in prevalence as the disease advances and is a sign of worsening kidney function. Anemia is also an independent risk factor for worse outcomes and death from kidney disease.

Treating anemia may improve functioning, but treatment can cause additional side effects in the long term. So, whenever possible, the treatment goals should include managing and treating CKD.

People who have CKD and experience symptoms of anemia should consult a doctor.