Acute Kidney Failure

Sudden loss of the function of both kidneys, which is potentially life-threatening

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle as risk factors depend on the cause

Acute kidney failure occurs when there is a sudden reduction of function in both kidneys. As a result, they can no longer adequately filter waste products and excess water from the blood into the urine. The waste substances may build up to dangerous levels in the body, and the chemical balance of the blood is upset. The condition is life-threatening and requires immediate hospital treatment.

What are the causes?

The most common cause of acute kidney failure is a reduction in the blood supply to the kidneys. This reduction may be due to a fall in blood pressure associated with shock (see Hypotension), such as after severe bleeding, serious infection, or a heart attack (see Myocardial infarction). Acute kidney failure may also result from glomerulonephritis, toxic chemicals, drugs, or obstruction to the flow of urine (see Hydronephrosis).

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of acute kidney failure may appear rapidly, sometimes over a period of hours, and include:

  • Greatly reduced urine volume.

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Drowsiness and headache.

  • Back pain.

If you develop these symptoms, you should call your doctor immediately. Without treatment, acute kidney failure may be fatal within a few days.

How is it diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects acute kidney failure, he or she will have you admitted to hospital for emergency treatment and tests to find the cause. In some cases, there may be an obvious cause, such as severe bleeding. In other cases, ultrasound scanning or CT scanning will be performed to look for a blockage of the urinary tract. A kidney biopsy may also be performed to identify the cause.

What is the treatment?

If you have acute kidney failure, you will need immediate treatment for the disorder and any associated conditions. You will probably be treated in an intensive therapy unit. You may have to undergo dialysis for a short time so that the excess fluid and waste products can be removed from your bloodstream while the doctors investigate the cause of the kidney failure. If you have lost a large amount of blood, you may need to have a blood transfusion to restore your normal blood volume. If an underlying disorder is diagnosed, treatment with drugs may be necessary. Finally, if there is a blockage anywhere in your urinary tract, you may need to undergo surgery to have the obstruction removed.

What is the prognosis?

If your kidneys have not already been damaged irreversibly, there is a good chance that you will make a complete recovery, which may take up to 6 weeks. However, in some cases, the resulting damage is not completely reversible, and in this situation chronic kidney failure may develop. If chronic kidney failure eventually progresses to end-stage kidney failure, in which there is a permanent and almost total loss of kidney function, you will need treatment that involves long-term dialysis or a kidney transplant.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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