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Acute kidney failure occurs when illness, infection, or injury damages the kidneys. Temporarily, the kidneys cannot adequately remove fluids and wastes from the body or maintain the proper level of certain kidney-regulated chemicals in the bloodstream.



The kidneys are the body's natural filtration system. They perform the critical task of processing approximately 200 quarts of fluid in the bloodstream every 24 hours. Waste products like urea and toxins, along with excess fluids, are removed from the bloodstream in the form of urine. Kidney (or renal) failure occurs when kidney functioning becomes impaired. Fluids and toxins begin to accumulate in the bloodstream. As fluids build up in the bloodstream, the patient with acute kidney failure may become puffy and swollen (edematous) in the face, hands, and feet. Their blood pressure typically begins to rise, and they may experience fatigue and nausea.

Unlike chronic kidney failure, which is long term and irreversible, acute kidney failure is a temporary condition. With proper and timely treatment, it can typically be reversed. Often there is no permanent damage to the kidneys. Acute kidney failure appears most frequently as a complication of serious illness, like heart failure, liver failure, dehydration, severe burns, and excessive bleeding (hemorrhage). It may also be caused by an obstruction to the urinary tract or as a direct result of kidney disease, injury, or an adverse reaction to a medicine.

Causes and symptoms

Acute kidney failure can be caused by many different illnesses, injuries, and infections. These conditions fall into three main categories: prerenal, postrenal, and intrarenal conditions.

Prerenal conditions do not damage the kidney, but can cause diminished kidney function. They are the most common cause of acute renal failure, and include

  • dehydration
  • hemorrhage
  • septicemia, or sepsis
  • heart failure
  • liver failure
  • burns

Postrenal conditions cause kidney failure by obstructing the urinary tract. These conditions include:

  • inflammation of the prostate gland in men (prostatitis)
  • enlargement of the prostate gland (benign prostatic hypertrophy)
  • bladder or pelvic tumors
  • kidney stones (calculi)

Intrarenal conditions involve kidney disease or direct injury to the kidneys. These conditions include:

  • lack of blood supply to the kidneys (ischemia)
  • use of radiocontrast agents in patients with kidney problems
  • drug abuse or overdose
  • long-term use of nephrotoxic medications, like certain pain medicines
  • acute inflammation of the glomeruli, or filters, of the kidney (glomerulonephritis)
  • kidney infections (pyelitis or pyelonephritis).

Common symptoms of acute kidney failure include

  • anemia. The kidneys are responsible for producing erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. If kidney disease causes shrinking of the kidney, red blood cell production is reduced, leading to anemia.
  • bad breath or bad taste in mouth. Urea in the saliva may cause an ammonia-like taste in the mouth.
  • bone and joint problems. The kidneys produce vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and keeps bones strong. For patients with kidney failure, bones may become brittle. In children, normal growth may be stunted. Joint pain may also occur as a result of high phosphate levels in the blood. Retention of uric acid may cause gout.
  • edema. Puffiness or swelling in the arms, hands, feet, and around the eyes.
  • frequent urination.
  • foamy or bloody urine. Protein in the urine may cause it to foam significantly. Blood in the urine may indicate bleeding from diseased or obstructed kidneys, bladder, or ureters.
  • headaches. High blood pressure may trigger headaches.
  • hypertension, or high blood pressure. The retention of fluids and wastes causes blood volume to increase. This makes blood pressure rise.
  • increased fatigue. Toxic substances in the blood and the presence of anemia may cause the patient to feel exhausted.
  • itching. Phosphorus, normally eliminated in the urine, accumulates in the blood of patients with kidney failure. An increased phosphorus level may cause the skin to itch.
  • lower back pain. Patients suffering from certain kidney problems (like kidney stones and other obstructions) may have pain where the kidneys are located, in the small of the back below the ribs.
  • nausea. Urea in the gastric juices may cause upset stomach.


Kidney failure is diagnosed by a doctor. A nephrologist, a doctor that specializes in the kidney, may be consulted to confirm the diagnosis and recommend treatment options. The patient that is suspected of having acute kidney failure will have blood and urine tests to determine the level of kidney function. A blood test will assess the levels of creatinine, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), uric acid, phosphate, sodium, and potassium. The kidney regulates these agents in the blood. Urine samples will also be collected, usually over a 24-hour period, to assess protein loss and/or creatinine clearance.

Determining the cause of kidney failure is critical to proper treatment. A full assessment of the kidneys is necessary to determine if the underlying disease is treatable and if the kidney failure is chronic or acute. X rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography scan (CT), ultrasound, renal biopsy, and/or arteriogram of the kidneys may be used to determine the cause of kidney failure and level of remaining kidney function. X rays and ultrasound of the bladder and/or ureters may also be needed.

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