Acute Renal Failure—When Kidneys Suddenly Stop Working

If you are confused about the difference between acute renal (also called kidney) failure and chronic kidney failure, you came to the right place. Chronic kidney failure is a condition where the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the bloodstream becomes worse over time, generally over a period of years.

Acute kidney failure is the sudden loss of this important ability. If your kidneys have experienced a direct injury or an obstruction, you are at risk. Although the condition can be life-threatening, it can also be reversible.

What else should I know about acute kidney failure?

Acute kidney failure is the sudden and dramatic loss of kidney function. This condition develops rapidly, often in just a few days.

Healthy kidneys filter and remove wastes and excess fluid from blood and turn it into urine. When you encounter acute kidney failure, the kidneys are operating at less than 10 percent of normal function. This means wastes such as creatinine and urea nitrogen build up in the bloodstream. If this waste is not removed, you can feel extremely ill.

What causes acute renal failure?

Renal failure symptoms can be difficult to detect. Acute renal failure may occur for a variety of reasons:

  • A crush-type injury may damage internal organs, including the kidneys
  • Over-exposure to metals, solvents and certain antibiotics and medication
  • A kidney infection may cause them to shut down

Obstructions in the urinary tract or renal artery can initiate acute kidney failure. Tumors, kidney stones or an enlarged prostate can block the flow of urine in the urinary tract. A blockage in the renal artery cuts off the supply of oxygen to the kidneys, and kidneys need oxygen to function.

Shock or trauma to the body can lead to low blood pressure. Sometimes the stress of surgery on the body can lower blood pressure to dangerous levels. Extremely low blood pressure means there is a decrease in blood flow, and kidneys will not receive oxygen or filter blood as efficiently as before.

What are the symptoms of acute kidney failure?

One of the most obvious renal failure symptoms is a decrease of urine. This symptom occurs in 70 percent of cases. Many people with acute kidney failure only create 16 ounces of urine a day (the average adult urinates between 34 to 50 ounces per day).

When urine output is low, fluid retention occurs, causing swelling in the legs, feet and ankles. Because wastes are not being removed from your body, you will feel ill. In addition, many people report:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling drowsy
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Numbness or decreased sensation in the hands and feet

Doctors can diagnose acute kidney failure with blood and urine tests.

How is acute renal failure treated?

Doctors will first treat any reversible illnesses that caused the renal failure. Infections can be treated with medication. Blockages, such as tumors or kidney stones, may need to be removed. Because treating the causes of acute renal failure takes time, your body will be unable to remove the waste from the bloodstream. In order to remove the toxins from the bloodstream and help you feel better, you would need dialysis.

Sometimes people develop high levels of potassium in their blood as a result of acute renal failure. This is condition is called hyperkalemia. Doctors can prescribe medication to control potassium levels.

In order to help keep the wastes and electrolytes at acceptable levels, you may be placed on a kidney diet that is low in protein, salt and potassium. Your fluid intake may also be restricted.

Can I prevent acute kidney failure?

Taking the necessary steps to stay healthy is the best way to prevent acute kidney failure. If you are going to be hospitalized for surgery or an illness, be aware of the risks and complications of any procedure you may undergo. Immediately report any changes in your urine output. And, as always, follow any instructions your doctors and nurses give you.

Keeping an open channel of communication with your healthcare team can help you get the treatment you need if acute kidney failure occurs.

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