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What is Acute Kidney Failure?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Acute kidney failure is a sudden, very dangerous loss of kidney functioning. When the kidneys stop filtering blood properly, toxins and waste fluids can build up in the bloodstream in life-threatening amounts. Acute kidney failure can be caused by defects within the organs themselves, insufficient blood flow into the kidneys, or problems expelling waste after it leaves them. An individual experiencing sudden renal failure many feel fatigued and drowsy, and notice swelling in the extremities and an inability to urinate. Seizures, coma, or death can occur if dialysis procedures and treatments for underlying problems are not addressed immediately.

Blood flow into the kidneys can be affected by low blood pressure or heart failure. When the kidneys are deprived of new blood, they have nothing to filter and shut down as a result. Kidney problems such as inflammation or damage caused by alcohol and medicines can also cause acute kidney failure in some cases. Even if the kidneys process waste properly, problems in the tubes leading to the bladder can result in urine backup and renal failure. Kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, or other bladder obstructions are leading causes of sudden kidney failure.

Kidney failure will often cause immediate symptoms, which may be mild to severe. Most people in the early stages of acute kidney failure notice that they are unable to urinate, feel weak or drowsy, and have difficulty breathing. Severe conditions such as seizures or coma can appear quickly or develop after other symptoms have been identified. Emergency treatment is usually necessary to prevent total loss of kidney functioning and other chronic health problems. In some cases, acute kidney failure can be fatal if medical attention is not sought right away.

Physicians and nurses usually check for acute kidney failure by performing physical examinations and checking blood and urine samples for unusual concentrations of minerals. Specialists may also conduct ultrasound or computerized tomography scans to confirm a diagnosis and attempt to determine the exact causes of kidney failure. Understanding the underlying cause of kidney problems is essential in deciding on the most appropriate treatment procedures.

The first treatment measure in many cases is dialysis, a procedure in which a patient's blood is filtered by an external machine. The dialysis machine temporarily takes over the function of the failed kidneys until doctors can treat the underlying causes and restore proper blood flow to the organs. Doctors may need to stabilize heart functioning and blood pressure or remove kidney stones through invasive surgery. Following treatment procedures, many people are able to partially or fully regain healthy kidney functioning.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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