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What is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hemolytic uremic syndrome is a rare medical condition which can cause severe kidney failure, anemia, and dangerously high blood pressure. The condition is almost always the result of consuming foods that contain a particular strain of the Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria. Hemolytic uremic syndrome primarily affects children under the age of 15, whose immune systems have not yet fully developed and are unable to control E. coli infections. Individuals over the age of 15 are much less susceptible, though it is entirely possible to suffer from the condition in adulthood. A person who experiences diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, and trouble urinating should seek a doctor immediately to test for E. coli and recommend medical procedures.

Most cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome arise when E. coli infections are left untreated for several days. Strands of E. coli bacteria in the digestive tract introduce toxins into the bloodstream that disrupt red blood cell functioning, destroy platelets, and eventually infect the kidneys. Children and adults place themselves at risk of contracting E. coli when they consume undercooked meat or dirty produce. Individuals who are directly exposed to human feces are also subject to infections. Other forms of hemolytic uremic syndrome occasionally arise from ingesting other types of foodborne bacteria or experiencing rare autoimmune disorders.

Individuals who have hemolytic uremic syndrome usually exhibit a number of different symptoms. Chronic diarrhea, fatigue, nausea, and abdominal pain are usually the earliest signs of E. coli infection, and may or may not precede more severe kidney problems. Extreme tiredness, difficult or decreased urination, irregular bruising, nosebleeds, swelling in the limbs, and paleness are indicators of renal failure and possible hemolytic uremic syndrome. It is extremely important to visit a physician when experiencing some or all of these symptoms so that a proper diagnosis can be made.

Doctors can diagnose the condition by asking patients about their symptoms and ordering blood and urine tests. It is usually necessary for an individual with hemolytic uremic syndrome to undergo a blood transfusion to rid the body of toxins and restore healthy platelet and red blood cell levels. If acute renal failure is already underway, the patient may need emergency dialysis to stabilize kidney functioning and restore important nutrients. In the most severe cases, a kidney transplant may be necessary to provide relief. When hemolytic uremic syndrome is diagnosed and treated right away, the patient is likely to begin feeling better immediately and enjoy a complete recovery in about a week.

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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