Acute kidney failure

When someone's kidneys suddenly stop working, the condition is called acute kidney failure, or acute renal failure. Acute kidney failure happens fast, usually in just a few days.

Typically, acute kidney failure happens to someone who is seriously ill and in the hospital. It is often a result of another disorder. For instance, heart failure from a heart attack or congestive heart failure can reduce the flow of blood to the kidneys and lead to kidney failure. Extremely low blood pressure — the result of shock, dehydration, severe bleeding or an infection in the bloodstream — can also prevent the kidneys from getting enough blood and result in their shutting down. 

Sometimes acute kidney failure occurs after complicated surgery has been performed; other times it's the result of an infection. There are other reasons someone might experience acute kidney failure. For instance, kidneys can shut down in reaction to a drug or after a traumatic injury, such as a blow to the kidneys. Also, if a person has an obstruction in the urinary tract or renal artery, it may lead to acute kidney failure.  

Acute kidney failure is a serious problem, because your kidneys are vital to your good health. Kidneys work to eliminate excess fluid, balance electrolytes, keep waste materials from building up in your bloodstream and help in the regulation of other bodily functions. If kidneys are not working properly, your body cannot continue to function normally.

Symptoms of acute kidney failure

Symptoms of acute kidney failure may include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Swelling in legs, feet or ankles due to fluid retention
  • Decrease in the amount of urine made
  • Urine changes (output decreases in 70% of cases)
  • In severe cases, there may be coma or seizures
  • Chest pain due to pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane around the heart
  • Diagnosis and treatment of acute kidney failure

    It is easy for doctors to diagnosis acute kidney failure using blood and urine tests. 

    Acute kidney failure is a life-threatening condition, but it can be reversed if the person's overall health is good. Someone whose kidneys have suddenly failed will be given quick and intensive treatment. 

    The health care team will start by treating any reversible illnesses that led to the acute kidney failure. Medications may be given to fight infection. Surgery can remove blockages such as tumors or kidney stones.  

    While the kidneys are not able to function normally, dialysis is used to remove waste from the patient's bloodstream. Dialysis is a mechanical means of filtering waste from the blood when kidneys are not able to do so on their own. Someone with acute renal failure will typically have dialysis treatments while in the hospital. In some cases, they may be required to continue treatment short term in a dialysis center until the kidneys start working well enough. 

    Sometimes acute kidney failure leads to high levels of potassium in the bloodstream, a condition called hyperkalemia. If this happens, there is medication that can be given to regulate potassium levels in addition to dialysis.

    Acute kidney failure and chronic kidney disease

    Acute kidney failure should not be confused with chronic kidney failure. In acute kidney failure, kidneys stop working all at once. In most cases of acute kidney failure, the kidneys will start working again. If someone has chronic kidney disease, their kidney function will probably deteriorate slowly, usually over a period of years. In chronic kidney disease, the kidneys are unable to recover and will not start working again.


    People have many different types of kidney problems. When someone's kidneys suddenly stop working, whether from an injury or an underlying medical problem, they experience acute kidney failure, also called acute renal failure. Learn what causes acute kidney failure, its symptoms and treatments. 

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