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Kidney Disease Information

More Information
For more information about kidney disease or kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD), visit the National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC).

What Do My Kidneys Do?

Your kidneys are bean-shaped organs, each about the size of your fist. They are located near the middle of your back, just below the rib cage.

Your kidneys filter blood. The filtering occurs in tiny units inside your kidneys called nephrons. One kidney has about a million nephrons. They remove waste products and extra water, which become urine. The urine flows through tubes called ureters to your bladder, which stores the urine until you go to the bathroom.

The wastes in your blood come from the normal breakdown of active tissues and from food you eat. After your body has taken what it needs from the food, waste is sent to the blood. If your kidneys did not remove these wastes, the wastes would build up in the blood and damage your body.

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What Is Kidney Disease?

Kidney disease results from damage to the nephrons, the tiny structures inside your kidneys that filter blood.

Usually the damage occurs very gradually over years. It happens in both kidneys. There aren't any obvious symptoms, so you don't know it's happening.

Common causes of kidney disease

  • Diabetes: In diabetes, the body doesn't use glucose (sugar) very well. The glucose stays in your blood and acts like a poison. If you have diabetes, you can prevent kidney disease by controlling your blood sugar levels.
  • High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure can damage the small blood vessels in your kidneys. When this happens your kidneys cannot filter wastes from your blood very well. If you have high blood pressure (hypertension) be sure to take any medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • Heredity: Some kidney diseases result from hereditary factors, and can run in families. If your family has a history of any kind of kidney problems, you may be at risk for kidney disease and should talk to your doctor.

[Learn more about the types and causes of kidney disease]

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Am I At Risk For Kidney Disease?

  • Do you have diabetes (problems with your blood sugar)?
  • Do you have high blood pressure?
  • Did your mother, father, sister, or brother ever have kidney failure? Kidney disease runs in families.

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you are at risk for kidney disease. Now is the time to talk to your doctor or health care professional about getting tested. It could save your life.

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How Can My Doctor Tell If I Have Kidney Disease?

Early kidney disease is a silent problem, like high blood pressure, and does not have any symptoms. You may have it, but not know it, because you don't feel sick.

To detect the disease doctors can do very simple tests that include:

  • Measure the level of serum creatinine in your blood to estimate your glomerular filtration rate (GFR)
  • Measure the level of protein in your urine (increased levels of protein show your kidneys are not working right)
  • Checking your blood pressure

[Learn more about how your doctor tests for kidney disease]

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If I Have Kidney Disease, How Can It Be Treated?

Unfortunately, kidney disease often cannot be cured. But if you are in the early stages of a kidney disease, you may be able to make your kidneys last longer by taking certain steps. You will also want to be sure that risks for heart attack and stroke are minimized, since kidney patients are susceptible to these problems.

  • If you have diabetes, watch your blood glucose closely to keep it under control. Consult your doctor for the latest in treatment.
  • People with reduced kidney function should have their blood pressure controlled, and an ACE inhibitor or an ARB should be one of their medications. Many people will require two or more types of medication to keep the blood pressure below 130/80 mm Hg. A diuretic is an important addition to the ACE inhibitor or ARB.

[Learn more about treatment]

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What Happens If My Kidneys Fail Completely?

Complete and irreversible kidney failure is sometimes called end-stage renal disease, or ESRD. If your kidneys stop working completely, your body fills with extra water and waste products. This condition is called uremia. Your hands or feet may swell. You will feel tired and weak because your body needs clean blood to function properly.

Untreated uremia may lead to seizures or coma and will ultimately result in death. If your kidneys stop working completely, you will need to undergo dialysis or kidney transplantation.


There are two major forms of dialysis.

  • In hemodialysis, your blood is sent through a machine that filters away waste products. The clean blood is returned to your body. Hemodialysis is usually performed at a dialysis center three times per week for 3 to 4 hours.
  • In peritoneal dialysis, a fluid is put into your abdomen. This fluid, called dialysate, captures the waste products from your blood. After a few hours, the dialysate containing your body's wastes is drained away. Then, a fresh bag of dialysate is dripped into the abdomen. Patients can perform peritoneal dialysis themselves. Patients using continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD), the most common form of peritoneal dialysis, change dialysate four times a day.

[Learn more about dialysis]


A donated kidney may come from an anonymous donor who has recently died or from a living person, usually a relative. The kidney that you receive must be a good match for your body. The more the new kidney is like you, the less likely your immune system is to reject it. You will take special drugs to help trick your immune system so it does not reject the transplanted kidney.

[Learn more about kidney transplants]

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Where Can I Find More Information About Kidney Disease?

NKDEP provides free educational materials and resources for patients and their families.

National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC)
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892

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Last Reviewed: March 28, 2005

NKDEP is an initiative of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK),
National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS).

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