Sudden Loss of Kidney Function: Do You Know What to Do in This Emergency?

August 12, 2014, 10:06am EDT

EmergencySome people suddenly lose their kidneys’ function. All at once, the kidneys stop doing their important tasks: eliminating excess fluid and salts and removing waste material. When the kidneys go on strike, dangerous levels of fluid, salts and wastes build up in the body. Without functioning kidneys, the person’s life is at risk.

Acute (sudden) kidney failure is the name of this problem. Most people with chronic kidney failure gradually lose the function of their kidneys. In people with acute kidney failure, though, kidney failure develops rapidly over a few hours or a few days. People at high risk are those who are already hospitalized, or who are critically ill from other causes and need intensive care.

Acute kidney failure requires immediate treatment. The good news is that acute kidney failure can often be reversed. The kidneys usually start working again within several weeks to months after the underlying cause has been treated. Dialysis is needed until then. If the kidneys fail completely, the only treatment options available are dialysis for the rest of your life or transplant.

Acute kidney failure almost always occurs in connection with another medical condition, infection or use of kidney-harming medicines. There are many possible causes of kidney damage. Many other serious conditions can increase your risk of acute kidney failure. Some of the situations that put you at risk of acute kidney failure include:

  • Being hospitalized, especially for a serious condition that requires intensive care
  • Decreased blood flow due to very low blood pressure, which can result from:
    • Burns
    • Dehydration
    • Hemorrhage
    • Injury
    • Septic shock
    • Surgery
  • Disorders that cause clotting within the kidneys’ blood vessels
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Serious urinary tract obstructions.
  • If you have one of these problems, your healthcare team will keep a watch on your kidney function. Tests are important, because you may not notice the symptoms of acute kidney failure at first. Symptoms often develop slowly. Report any of these problems to your healthcare team:

    • Decreased urine amounts
    • A metallic taste
    • Areas of swelling in the body
    • Problems concentrating
    • Fatigue and not wanting to do anything
    • Nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea
    • Abdominal pain
    • Seizures or coma (usually late in the process).

    If you develop acute kidney failure, quick treatment and hospitalization may bring your kidneys back on the job.