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Kidney Failure

what is kidney failure?

Learn more about kidney failure (end stage renal disease)

Healthy kidneys clean your blood by removing excess fluid, minerals and wastes. They also make hormones that keep your bones strong and your blood healthy. Most people with kidney problems have chronic kidney disease (CKD). Chronic kidney disease is a long and usually slow process where the kidneys slowly lose function. When the kidneys function at 15% or less, this is called kidney failure or end stage renal disease (ESRD). When your kidneys fail, harmful wastes build up in your body. When this happens, you will need treatment to replace the work of your failed kidneys.

People facing kidney failure will require dialysis or a kidney transplant. These treatments are called kidney (renal) replacement therapy. If you are facing kidney failure and haven’t explored your options, now is the time to learn more.

Know your GFR flow
Glomerular filtration rate (GFR) is a measure of how well your kidneys are working. It helps your doctor diagnose kidney disease by determining how well your kidneys are cleaning your blood.

Learn about diagnosis

Even if kidney function ends, it doesn’t mean your life does. Read about people that faced kidney failure head on and now lead full, active lives.

When a person reaches end stage renal disease, both kidneys have stopped or almost stopped doing their jobs. The body fills up with extra fluid and wastes that would normally be filtered out. This is called uremia. If you learn the signs and symptoms of uremia, you’ll be better able to watch for them and alert your doctor.  

Signs of Kidney Failure:

  • Your hands, feet or face feel swollen.
  • It’s hard to catch your breath.
  • Your skin is very, very itchy.
  • Your skin color looks darker or yellow.
  • You have a “metal” taste in your mouth.
  • You may not want to eat protein—beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs.
  • Your appetite is gone. You may feel sick to your stomach and sometimes throw up.
  • Friends and/or relatives may tell you your breath smells like ammonia.
  • You may feel cold all the time.
  • You can’t think straight or focus on things like you used to.
  • You are very, very tired all the time and your muscles feel weak.   

If you have any of these symptoms, let your doctor know right away so that you can be tested for kidney failure.  

When facing kidney failure, you and your doctor can work together to create a treatment plan. This may include:

  • A kidney (renal) replacement therapy option.
  • An access site, if you are choosing dialysis.
  • What to eat and drink.
  • Medications.
  • Lifestyle changes.

This plan is designed to help you feel well and have a good quality of life.

When considering your treatment options, it is important to discuss options for placement of an access site for dialysis with your doctor.

Learn more about hemodialysis access.

Learn more about peritoneal dialysis access.

How a treatment plan can make up for failed kidneys 

Dialysis can’t work all by itself. You and your healthcare team will work together to create a treatment plan that helps your body make up for the loss of healthy kidney function.

Renal replacement therapy combines dialysis, medication and diet. Here is an example of how each of these elements replace normal kidney function.

What Healthy Kidneys Do Dialysis Medications Meals & Fluid Plan Stay Active
Remove excess body fluid
Filter wastes out of the blood
Control blood pressure for a strong heart
Controll phosphorus for strong bones
Help your body use Vitamin D for strong bones
Trigger your body to make red blood cells
Good health, movement , energy and strong bones

Regardless of your treatment, remember to stick with it and be consistent. Take any medications you’ve been prescribed and see your nephrologist, or kidney specialist, regularly. If you don’t have one, visit Find a Physician to find one near you. 



Content developed with the help of Kidney School, a program of the Medical Education Institution, Inc., and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

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