May 8, 2019

5 Kidney Failure Symptoms to See Your Doctor About

Plus, two easy-to-spot kidney disease risk factors

woman taking blood pressure reading at home

Your kidneys are like the technical crew from the latest “Avengers” movie. They may not be the flashy superheroes, but without their unsung work, you don’t have a blockbuster.


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Your kidneys have the thankless but critical job of getting rid of waste and extra fluid. Plus, they keep your organs working. Nephrologist Juan Calle, MD, explains how to look for early signs of kidney disease so you can keep your kidney crew as healthy as possible.

When kidneys aren’t doing their jobs

Renal failure, also called kidney failure or kidney disease, happens when the kidneys are not working efficiently or effectively. An estimated 37 million U.S. adults are living with chronic kidney disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even more shocking? Nine in ten adults who have it don’t even know it.

How could that be? “People don’t usually have noticeable signs of kidney failure until it is very advanced,” says Dr. Calle.

This sneak attack is why kidney failure is known as a “silent killer.”

By the time it’s diagnosed, dialysis and kidney transplant usually have unwelcome seats at the table. So it’s critical to catch any problems before kidney dysfunction passes the point of no return.


Get to know the signs of kidney failure

So how do you turn up the volume on this silent killer? Dr. Calle says to pay attention to these five signs of kidney failure:

  1. High blood pressure: Kidneys help regulate blood pressure by releasing hormones. When they are damaged, they can’t do their job effectively.
  2. Changes in your urination habits: You may be urinating less frequently or not at all. Your urine may appear frothy or darker (think the color of tea or cola). “Even a little blood can change the color of urine dramatically.”
  3. Swelling, or edema: This goes beyond the bloating some of us experience after a salty meal. “The swelling can happen anywhere. But people usually notice it more in their legs, lower back, face and eyelids.”
  4. Nausea, vomiting and a decreased appetite: Too much waste in your body affects everything, including your stomach.
  5. Brain fog: Excess waste can make it hard to concentrate. Your brain may feel “fuzzy.” You may also have less energy and feel unsteady or light-headed.

But here’s the problem (as if we didn’t just list five): These symptoms seem to appear with no rhyme or reason. “You could have all the symptoms at the same time or intermittently, or you may have one but not the others,” Dr. Calle explains. It can feel like playing symptom Russian roulette.

To play it safe, see your doctor even if just one of these symptoms makes an appearance.

Watch out for these two risk factors

Two risk factors may rear their ugly heads before you notice any kidney failure symptoms, giving you a head start to get on top of this disease.

The first one to watch for is high blood pressure (again). “High blood pressure may be a sign of kidney disease, or it may cause it. It’s the chicken-or-egg dilemma,” Dr. Calle says.


Diabetes is another key risk factor. “Anyone who has high blood pressure and diabetes needs to be screened for kidney diseases.”

Other important risk factors include:

  • Family history of kidney disease
  • Regularly taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen as well as proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as omeprazole (Prilosec OTC®) that treat reflux and other GI issues
  • A past acute kidney injury, which is when your kidneys are damaged or fail suddenly
  • Certain chemotherapy regimens

And when in doubt, check it out. Dr. Calle recommends taking any questions or concerns to a primary care physician, internist or nephrologist.

“Don’t rely on your Internet research,” he says. “Some websites are not reputable and can needlessly scare you.”

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