Renal or kidney failure can be acute or chronic. While chronic renal failure is incurable, doctors may be able to reverse acute renal failure with medication or dialysis.

Renal failure occurs when one or both kidneys operate at less than 15% of normal function.

When renal failure is not reversible, professionals may refer to it as end stage kidney disease (ESKD) or end stage renal disease (ESRD).

This article looks at how doctors cure and treat renal failure and less severe types of kidney disease.

A doctor in a hospital planning to cure renal failure.Share on Pinterest
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Recently, professionals replaced the term “acute renal failure” with acute kidney injury (AKI).

AKI happens when the kidneys fail within a matter of hours or a few days. However, not all AKI is severe enough to cause renal failure. Most people who develop AKI are already in the hospital for other conditions. Older adults are also at risk of AKI.

Doctors can usually treat and reverse AKI with dialysis and medication.

Chronic renal failure means the kidneys have been working at a reduced capacity for over 3 months. Chronic renal failure is also called chronic kidney disease (CKD) and is not always severe to the point of actual renal failure. Doctors cannot cure chronic renal failure, but treatment can help manage symptoms and improve overall health.

In acute and chronic cases, the kidneys are unable to clear toxins from the blood. The goal of treatment is to clean the blood and remove some toxins, thereby relieving some symptoms.

Medications may address other symptoms. The doctor will usually recommend dialysis, a process that cleans the blood, or a kidney transplant. Changes to diet and lifestyle can also improve symptoms.

Doctors may be able to reverse AKI, but the treatment they administer will depend on the cause and severity.

Doctors may:

In severe cases, doctors may also recommend dialysis.

Most people with AKI will recover. However, it is possible to develop chronic kidney disease as a result of AKI. A person with chronic kidney disease will need to receive lifelong treatment.

This section looks at the possible treatments for renal failure. For chronic renal failure, these treatments will not be curative.

The aim of chronic renal failure treatment is to make the symptoms more manageable and reduce the amount of toxins in the body, avoiding complications.


Dialysis is a procedure to clean toxins and excess water from the blood. Dialysis performs the role that the kidneys would have.

There are two kinds of dialysis: hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. The doctor will decide which option is best, depending on the condition of the kidneys and the lifestyle of the patient.


During hemodialysis, a medical professional inserts two needles into the arm. Each needle connects to a tube that is also connected to the dialysis machine.

Blood flows from the arm into the dialysis machine, which contains a dialyzer, or filter. The blood then passes back into the body through the other tube, filtered of waste products and excess water.

Hemodialysis takes about 4 hours and is usually done at a dialysis center three times per week. Some people do dialysis at home for longer periods or more frequently, which more closely replicates the high level of filtration the kidneys used to provide.

Hemodialysis cannot replace all the work the kidneys once did. It will increase energy, but changes to diet and water intake can also help prevent fluid buildup in the body. Other concerns include problems with accessing blood vessels in the arm, infection at needle stick sites, or blood clots.

The body may also experience water and chemical balance changes during hemodialysis that cause muscle cramping or a drop in blood pressure.

Peritoneal dialysis

Peritoneal dialysis uses the lining of the abdomen, called the peritoneum, to filter the blood of waste products and excess water.

A surgeon places a tube called a catheter into the belly. Medical professionals then hook a bag with salt water and other filtration ingredients to the line and drain the fluid into the abdomen.

They disconnect the bag and cap off the catheter when the bag is empty. The individual can then participate in everyday activities while the solution filters the blood over the next several hours.

The individual will drain the solution, now with waste products mixed in, into the empty bag and place the new solution into the abdomen.

They repeat the process four to six times per day. Switching the solution takes around 30–40 minutes. The time that the solution is in the abdomen is called the dwell time.

Infection at the catheter site is one of the most common and serious problems of peritoneal dialysis. Other concerns include an infection of the peritoneum called bacterial peritonitis, hernia, and weight gain from dextrose in the solution.


No specific medications manage renal failure, but doctors may prescribe medications to manage accompanying or underlying conditions or symptoms. These could include:

The doctor will evaluate which medications to prescribe based on the stage of kidney disease, any other health issues, and any other medications being taken.


A kidney transplant is a surgery to place a working kidney inside the body. The new kidney may come from a living person or someone recently deceased.

The surgeons usually leave the old, nonworking kidneys in place and add the new kidney, connecting it to an artery and a vein that are lower in the body than the current kidneys. They also connect the donor kidney to the urinary bladder via a donor ureter. The new, transplanted kidney begins to filter the blood in the body.

The body uses the immune system to fight off things it sees as foreign or invading. It will see the new kidney this way, so a doctor will prescribe immunosuppressants after surgery.

There are benefits and drawbacks to any surgery. With a kidney transplant, the benefits include having:

  • a working kidney
  • a better quality of life
  • fewer dietary restrictions
  • no need for dialysis
  • a better chance of living longer than when on dialysis

The drawbacks of a kidney transplant include the following:

  • It requires surgery, which carries a risk of infection.
  • It requires extensive medical testing.
  • There is a waiting list for kidneys.
  • The body might reject the new kidney.
  • It requires taking immunosuppressant medications, which may cause other problems or side effects.

Medical professionals may recommend dietary and lifestyle changes to help manage renal failure.

There is no specific diet for renal failure, but the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends avoiding salt in excess and eating small portions of protein.

Protein makes the kidneys work hard, so a person should try to eat small portions of animal or plant-based protein. If someone eats both types, they should try not to do so in excess. A dietitian can help a person determine the right type and amount of protein for their situation.

A person should consider choosing heart-healthy foods to help prevent fat from collecting in blood vessels, the heart, and the kidneys. To do this, a person can try:

With decreasing kidney function comes the need to reduce phosphorus and potassium in the diet. A doctor may recommend consulting with a dietitian at some point.

A person should look for phosphorus on ingredient labels, or “PHOS.” Meats, especially deli meat, can have added phosphorus.

Foods that are lower in phosphorus include:

With kidney damage, potassium can build up in the blood, creating heart problems. A person should check ingredient labels before eating.

Foods lower in potassium include:

Additionally, a person should limit alcohol intake and stop smoking if they currently smoke.

Staying physically active will also help manage renal failure. Activity moves blood through the body more quickly, which helps supply the body with oxygen.

It can also boost mood and provide an overall sense of well-being. However, a person should talk with the doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.

The outlook for a person with renal failure depends on the type.

Acute renal failure comes on quickly, and doctors can usually reverse it.

Chronic renal failure, occurring for over 3 months, is not curable. However, doctors can treat it with dialysis.

Surgery to transplant a healthy kidney may also be an option for cases of chronic renal failure.

This section answers some frequently asked questions about curing and treating renal failure.

How long can you survive kidney failure?

Life expectancy with renal failure depends on many factors.

Overall, dialysis helps people live an average of 5–10 years longer.

A transplant from a deceased donor helps people live an average of 10–15 additional years, and a transplant from a living donor helps people live an average of 15–20 years more.

Can a person recover from acute kidney failure?

When doctors catch and treat it quickly, it is possible to reverse acute kidney failure.

Most people who develop acute kidney failure are already in the hospital receiving treatment for another condition.

The medical team will treat what is causing the acute kidney failure. They may also order dialysis to help clean the blood while the kidneys heal.

Renal failure is a serious condition that occurs when the kidneys are damaged and can no longer adequately filter waste products, toxins, and excess water from the blood.

This a case of severe AKI that occurs within days or weeks, or chronic renal failure that develops over 3 or more months.

Chronic renal failure is incurable, but doctors can treat it with dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Dialysis is an outpatient procedure that cleans the blood. There are two ways to receive dialysis, for varying lengths of time. Sometimes a person receives it overnight.

Treatment for chronic renal failure can extend an individual’s life by 5–20 years, depending on the chosen treatment and the overall health of the individual.