Chronic Kidney Failure

What is chronic kidney failure?

Chronic kidney failure is also called chronic renal failure (CRF). It occurs when your kidneys slowly work less and less until they no longer work at all. Normally, kidneys remove chemicals and waste from the blood. These wastes are turned into urine by the kidneys. In chronic kidney failure, your kidneys can no longer do this. Chronic kidney failure can get worse and lead to end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

What causes chronic kidney failure?

  • Diabetes: This is the most common cause of chronic kidney failure. High blood sugar levels can damage your kidneys.

  • High blood pressure: High blood pressure can damage the blood vessels inside your kidneys.

  • Blockages: Disorders that block urine flow cause damage to the kidneys. Some examples are kidney stones, enlarged prostate, or tumors.

  • Kidney disease: This includes kidney infections or cancer.

  • Autoimmune disease: Some autoimmune diseases, like lupus, may harm your kidneys.

What are the signs and symptoms of chronic kidney failure?

You may have any of the following:

  • Early stage:

    • Excessive thirst

    • Fatigue

    • Frequent hiccups

    • Loss of appetite

    • Bad or bitter taste in your mouth

    • Nausea or vomiting

    • Weight loss

  • Late stage:

    • Drowsiness, confusion, or loss of consciousness

    • Numbness in your hands or feet, muscle twitching, or muscle cramps

    • Uremic frost (deposits of white crystals in your skin)

    • Itchy skin, abnormally dark or light skin, or skin that bruises easily

    • Very little urine or none at all, or frequent urination at night

    • Seizures

How is chronic kidney failure diagnosed?

You may have one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood and urine tests: These tests will show how well your kidneys are working.

  • Imaging tests: The following tests may be used to take pictures of your kidneys:

    • X-ray: A caregiver uses an x-ray machine to take pictures of your kidneys, ureters, and bladder .

    • Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to look for a kidney stone, an abscess, or other problems.

    • CT scan: A type of x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your kidneys. You may be given dye in your IV before the pictures are taken. The dye may help caregivers see the pictures better. People who are allergic to iodine or shellfish (crab, lobster, or shrimp) may be allergic to some dyes. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to shellfish, or have other allergies or medical conditions.

    • MRI: An MRI may be used to take pictures of your kidneys. The MRI machine contains a very powerful magnet. Never enter the MRI room with any metal objects. This can cause serious injury. Tell your caregiver if you have any metal implants in your body.

    • Biopsy: A very small piece of your kidney is removed and tested during this surgical procedure.

How is chronic kidney failure treated?

The goal of treatment is to control your symptoms and keep your kidney failure from getting worse. Treatment depends on the cause of your kidney failure and how severe it is. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:

    • Blood pressure medicine: This is given to control your blood pressure.

    • Diuretics: These medicines are often called water pills. Diuretics help your body get rid of extra fluid. They may also help decrease your blood pressure.

    • Steroids: These may be given to decrease inflammation and pain.

  • Other treatments: You may have any of the following treatments if medicines do not control your kidney failure:

    • Dialysis: This cleans your blood of wastes when your kidneys no longer work well.

    • Surgery: You may need surgery if your kidney failure is caused by a blockage in your urinary system.

    • Kidney transplant: This is surgery to replace your failed kidney with a healthy kidney donated by another person. The donated kidney does the work that your failed kidneys used to do.

What are the risks of chronic kidney failure?

Treatments for chronic kidney failure may cause unpleasant side effects. If chronic kidney failure is not treated, it can be life-threatening. The risk of serious illness or death is much lower if chronic kidney failure is treated early.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • You cannot make it to your follow-up visit or dialysis treatment.

  • You have a fever.

  • You have chills, cough, or feel weak and achy.

  • Your skin is itchy or has a rash.

  • You are urinating very little or not at all.

  • You are vomiting everything that you eat or drink.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek help immediately or call 911 if:

  • You heart is beating fast or you are breathing fast.

  • You are confused and very drowsy.

  • You have a seizure.

  • You have sudden chest pain or trouble breathing.

Where can I get support and more information?

  • National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
    3 Information Way
    Bethesda , MD 20892-3580
    Phone: 1- 800 - 891-5390
    Web Address:
  • National Kidney Foundation
    30 East 33rd Street
    New York , NY 10016
    Phone: 1- 212 - 889-2210
    Phone: 1- 800 - 622-9010
    Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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