Acute Kidney Failure

July 14, 2020
Janelle Thomas MSN, RN
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Your kidneys are two of the most important organs in your body. They filter out waste products from your blood and keep your blood’s chemical makeup in check. But, your kidneys can lose their ability to filter waste. This can lead to an accumulation of toxins that leads to further issues. When this happens in a matter of a few days, it’s known as acute kidney failure. What causes it, and what can you do to treat it?

What causes acute kidney failure?

Because kidney failure is caused by low blood pressure, most cases of acute kidney failure occur in people who are in the intensive care unit of a hospital. But, the cause could be a myriad of reasons, including:

  • Acute tubular necrosis (ATN)
  • Severe or sudden dehydration
  • Toxic kidney injury from poisons or certain medications
  • Autoimmune kidney diseases — such as acute nephritic syndrome or interstitial nephritis
  • Urinary tract obstruction
  • Burns
  • Hemorrhage
  • Injury
  • Septic shock
  • Serious illness
  • Surgery

Symptoms of Acute Kidney Failure

Signs that you may have acute kidney failure can range in severity. The most common symptoms may include:

  • Decreased urine output
  • Fluid retention — causing swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Seizures or coma in severe cases
  • Bloody stools
  • Breath odor
  • Slow, sluggish movements
  • Pain between your ribs and hips
  • Hand tremor
  • Bruising easily
  • Changes in mental status or mood — especially in older adults
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased sensation — especially in your hands or feet
  • Prolonged bleeding

Kidney Failure Risk Factors

There are a few things that can increase your risk of developing acute kidney failure — such as being older. In addition to being in the intensive care unit, recipients of heart surgery, abdominal surgery, or a bone marrow transplant are also at extreme risk. But, long-term health issues can also play a pivotal role, including:

  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes — especially if not well controlled
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Morbid obesity

Diagnosing Acute Kidney Failure

If you suspect you or a loved one may be experiencing acute kidney failure, you should see a doctor immediately. Acute kidney failure complications could lead to death if left untreated. Your doctor will likely do a physical exam — particularly using a stethoscope to identify if they hear ribs cracking, which is an indication of fluid retention. Then, your medical provider will issue a variety of tests, including:

Acute Kidney Failure Treatment Options

Once diagnosed, your doctor’s goal will be to restore your kidneys to normal function. Most acute kidney failure can be reversed and cured. Your doctor may recommend a kidney specialist — such as a nephrologist — to help create a treatment plan. Your treatment may include a change in diet to limit the amount of liquids to drink and eat. Your diet may also include foods high in carbohydrates and low in sodium and potassium.

Your medical provider will also likely prescribe medications to help eliminate fluid retention. In some cases, antibiotics are needed to eliminate the risk of infection. Calcium tablets or insulin can help you avoid foods high in potassium.

In some cases, you may require dialysis. This involves diverting blood out of your body into a machine that filters out waste, then returning the clean blood to your body. Dialysis is typically a short term solution but can be essential when potassium levels are extremely high.

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