Renal failure is a serious medical condition affecting the kidneys. When a person suffers from this condition, their kidneys are not functioning properly or no longer work at all. Renal failure can be a progressive disease or a temporary one depending on the cause and available treatment options.
The kidneys are glands that are located in the abdominal region just above the pelvis on either side of the body. When functioning normally, the kidneys separate and filter excess water and waste from the blood stream. The kidneys are responsible for producing urine, which is used to flush away the toxins. The kidneys also maintain a healthy balance of fluids and electrolytes, or salt compounds, in the body.
In renal failure the kidneys undergo cellular death and are unable to filter wastes, produce urine and maintain fluid balances. This dysfunction causes a build up of toxins in the body which can affect the blood, brain and heart, as well as other complications. Kidney failure is very serious and even deadly if left untreated.
There are two types of kidney failure: acute and chronic. Acute renal failure occurs suddenly and is usually initiated by underlying causes, like dehydration, infection, serious injury to the kidney or the chronic use of over the counter pain medications like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen). Acute failure is often reversible with no lasting damage.
Chronic kidney failure is more serious than the acute version because symptoms may not appear until the kidneys are extremely damaged. Chronic kidney failure can be caused by other long term diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Chronic kidney failure can worsen over time, especially when the problem has gone undiagnosed and treatment is delayed.
The symptoms of kidney failure include edema, which is an accumulation of fluid characterized by swelling, and a decrease in urination. Other symptoms may include a general ill feeling, exhaustion and headaches. Often, a person with this condition does not experience any symptoms.
With treatment, a person with kidney failure can live a relatively normal life. Depending on the severity of kidney failure, renal function may be restored by treating the primary disease that is responsible for the damage, or by treating the kidneys with medication. In severe cases of renal failure, a person might require dialysis and a kidney transplant.
To undergo renal dialysis, the patient must be connected to a machine that mechanically filters the blood. Dialysis does not treat this condition, but instead keeps a person alive by performing the crucial functions of the kidneys. A person may have to undergo dialysis as often as several times a day or as little as once weekly, depending on the severity of the condition. A person with acute, reversible renal failure may need dialysis while the kidneys recover.
When the kidneys fail completely, the patient will need a kidney transplant. Fortunately, human beings can function with only one kidney, so relatives and other living donors are an option. This reduces the need for deceased donors that is common with other organ transplants and requires long waiting lists. However, it is necessary to find a donor that has a similar tissue and blood type, which means that finding a kidney may still be difficult. Most people who need a kidney transplant must also be on dialysis until a match is found.