Health A to Z
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a long-term condition where the kidneys don't work as well as they should.
It's a common condition often associated with getting older. Anyone can get it, although it's more common in black people and people of south Asian origin.
CKD can get gradually worse over time and eventually the kidneys may stop working altogether, but this is uncommon. Many people with kidney disease are able to live long, largely normal lives.
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There are usually no symptoms of kidney disease in the early stages. It may only be picked up if blood or urine tests carried out for another reason detect a possible problem with your kidneys.
When it reaches a more advanced stage, symptoms can include:
See your GP if you have persistent or worrying symptoms that you think could be caused by kidney disease.
Read more about the symptoms of CKD.
Kidney disease is usually caused by other conditions that put a strain on the kidneys. Often it's the result of a combination of different problems.
CKD can be caused by:
You can help prevent CKD by making healthy lifestyle changes and ensuring any underlying conditions you have are well controlled.
CKD can be diagnosed using blood and urine tests. These tests are used to look for high levels of certain substances in your blood and urine that are signs your kidneys aren't working properly.
If you're at a high risk of developing kidney disease – for example, you have one of the conditions mentioned above – you may be advised to have regular tests to check for CKD so it's picked up at an early stage.
The results of your blood and urine tests can be used to tell the stage of your kidney disease. This is a number that reflects how severe the damage to your kidneys is, with a higher number indicating more serious CKD.
Read more about how CKD is diagnosed.
There's no cure for CKD, but treatment can help relieve the symptoms and stop it getting worse.
Your treatment will depend on how severe your kidney disease is.
The main treatments are:
You'll also be advised to have regular check-ups to monitor your condition.
CKD can range from a mild condition with no or few symptoms, to a very serious condition where the kidneys stop working, sometimes called kidney failure.
Most people with CKD will be able to control their condition with medication and regular check-ups. CKD only progresses to kidney failure in around 1 in 50 people with the condition.
But if you have CKD, even if it's mild, you're at an increased risk of developing other serious problems, such as cardiovascular disease. This is a group of conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels, which includes heart attacks and strokes.
Cardiovascular disease is one of the main causes of death in people with kidney disease, although healthy lifestyle changes and medication can help reduce your risk of developing it.
Many people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) won't have symptoms because it doesn't usually cause problems until it reaches an advanced stage.
There don't tend to be any symptoms of kidney disease when it's at an early stage.
This is because the body is usually able to cope with a significant reduction in kidney function.
Kidney disease is often only diagnosed at this stage after a routine test, such as a blood or urine test, detects a possible problem.
If it's picked up at this stage, you may only need medication and regular tests to monitor it. This can help stop it becoming more advanced.
A number of symptoms can develop if kidney disease isn't picked up early on or it gets worse despite treatment.
Symptoms can include:
See your GP if you have persistent or worrying symptoms that you think could be caused by kidney disease.
The symptoms of kidney disease can be caused by many less serious conditions, so it's important to get a proper diagnosis.
If you do have CKD, it's best to get it diagnosed as soon as possible. Kidney disease can be diagnosed by having blood and urine tests.
Read more about how CKD is diagnosed.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) can be diagnosed with blood and urine tests.
In many cases, it's only picked up because a routine blood or urine test indicates that the kidneys may not be working normally.
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See your GP if you have persistent symptoms of CKD. They can look for other possible causes and arrange tests if necessary.
But as kidney disease often has no symptoms in the early stages, some people at a higher risk should ideally be tested regularly.
Regular testing is recommended for people with:
People taking long-term medications that can affect the kidneys, such as lithium, omeprazole or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), should also be tested regularly.
Talk to your GP if you think you may need regular testing for kidney disease.
The main test for kidney disease is a blood test that's used to work out how well your kidneys are working. The test measures the levels of a waste product called creatinine in your blood.
Using this result, a calculation that takes into account your age, gender and ethnic group is then done to work out how many millilitres of waste your kidneys are able to filter in a minute.
This measurement is known as your estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR).
Healthy kidneys should be able to filter more than 90ml/min. You may have kidney disease if your result is lower than this.
Read more about your test results below.
Urine tests are also usually carried out to:
Alongside your eGFR measurement, these tests can help give a more accurate picture of how well your kidneys are working.
Read about test results, below, for more information.
Sometimes other tests are also used to assess the level of damage to your kidneys.
These may include:
Your test results can be used to determine how damaged your kidneys are, known as the stage of CKD.
This can help your doctor decide the best treatment for you and determine how often you should have tests to monitor your condition.
Your eGFR result is given as a stage from one to five:
Your ACR result is given as a stage from one to three:
For both eGFR and ACR, a higher stage indicates more severe kidney disease.
The following lifestyle measures are usually recommended for people with kidney disease:
Read about living with CKD for more information about what you can do to stay healthy.
There's no medicine specifically for CKD, but medication can help control many of the problems that cause the condition and complications that can occur as a result of it.
You may need to take medication to treat or prevent:
Good control of blood pressure is vital to protect the kidneys.
People with kidney disease should usually aim to get their blood pressure down to below 140/90mmHg, but you should aim to get it down to below 130/80mmHg if you also have diabetes.
There are many types of blood pressure medication, but medicines called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are often used. Examples include ramipril, enalapril and lisinopril.
Side effects of ACE inhibitors can include:
If the side effects of ACE inhibitors are particularly troublesome, you can be given a medication called an angiotensin-II receptor blocker (ARB) instead.
Read more about how high blood pressure is treated.
This is because some of the causes of kidney disease are the same as those for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
You may be prescribed medication called statins to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Examples include atorvastatin, fluvastatin and simvastatin.
Side effects of statins can include:
Read more about how high cholesterol is treated.
You may experience swelling in your ankles, feet and hands if you have kidney disease.
This is because your kidneys aren't as effective at removing fluid from your blood, causing it to build up in the body tissues (oedema).
You may be advised to reduce your daily salt and fluid intake, including fluids in food like soups and yoghurts, to help relieve the swelling.
In some cases you may also be given water tablets (diuretics) to take, such as furosemide.
Side effects of diuretics can include dehydration and reduced levels of sodium and potassium in the blood.
Many people with later-stage kidney disease develop anaemia, which is a lack of red blood cells.
Symptoms of anaemia include:
If you experience anaemia, you may be given injections of a medication called erythropoietin. This is a hormone that helps your body produce more red blood cells.
If you have an iron deficiency as well, iron supplements may also be recommended.
Read more about how iron deficiency anaemia is treated.
If your kidneys are severely damaged, you can get a build-up of phosphate in your body because your kidneys cannot get rid of it.
Along with calcium, phosphate is important for maintaining healthy bones. But if your phosphate level rises too much, it can upset the balance of calcium in your body and lead to thinning of the bones.
You may be advised to limit the amount of high-phosphate food in your diet, such as red meat, dairy products, eggs and fish.
If this doesn't lower your phosphate level enough, you may be given medicines called phosphate binders. Commonly used medicines include calcium acetate and calcium carbonate.
Some people with kidney disease also have low levels of vitamin D, which is necessary for healthy bones, too.
If you're low in vitamin D, you may be given a supplement called colecalciferol or ergocalciferol to boost your vitamin D level.
Kidney disease can be caused by inflammation of the filters inside the kidneys, known as glomerulonephritis.
In some cases this occurs as a result of the immune system mistakenly attacking the kidneys.
If a kidney biopsy finds that this is the cause of your kidney problems, you may be prescribed medicine to reduce the activity of your immune system, such as steroid medication or a medication called cyclophosphamide.
In a small proportion of people with kidney disease, the condition will eventually get to a point where their kidneys stop working.
This rarely happens suddenly, so there should be time to plan the next stage of your treatment.
One of the options when CKD reaches this stage is to have dialysis. This is a procedure to remove waste products and excess fluid from the blood.
There are two main types of dialysis:
Haemodialysis is usually done about three times a week, either at hospital or at home. Peritoneal dialysis is normally done at home several times a day, or overnight.
If you don't have a kidney transplant, treatment with dialysis will usually need to be lifelong.
Talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of each type of dialysis and discuss which type you would prefer if your kidney function becomes severely reduced.
An alternative to dialysis for people with severely reduced kidney function is a kidney transplant.
This is often the most effective treatment for advanced kidney disease, but it involves major surgery and taking medications to stop your body attacking the donor organ (immunosuppressants) for the rest of your life.
You can live with one kidney, which means donor kidneys can come from recently deceased or living donors.
But there's still a shortage of donors, and sometimes you could wait months or years for a transplant.
You may need to have dialysis while you wait for a transplant.
Survival rates for kidney transplants are extremely good nowadays. About 90% of transplants still function after five years and many work usefully after 10 years or more.
You'll be offered supportive treatment if you decide not to have dialysis or a transplant for kidney failure, or they're not suitable for you. This is also called palliative or conservative care.
The aim is to treat and control the symptoms of kidney failure. It includes medical, psychological and practical care for both the person with kidney failure and their family, including discussion about how you feel and planning for the end of life.
Many people choose supportive treatment because they:
If you choose to have supportive treatment, your kidney unit will still look after you. Supportive care can still allow you to live for some time with a good quality of life.
Doctors and nurses will make sure you receive:
It's very important that you take any prescribed medication, even if you don't feel unwell. Some medicines are designed to prevent serious problems occurring in the future.
It's also useful to read the information leaflet that comes with the medication about possible interactions with other medicines or supplements.
Check with your care team if you plan to take any over-the-counter remedies, such as painkillers or nutritional supplements. These can sometimes affect your kidneys or interfere with your medication.
Read more about pharmacy remedies and kidney disease.
Also speak to your care team if you have any concerns about the medication you are taking, or if you're experiencing any side effects.
A healthy, balanced diet can help improve your general health and reduce your risk of developing further problems.
A balanced diet should include:
You may also be given advice about dietary changes that can specifically help with kidney disease, such as limiting the amount of potassium or phosphate in your diet.
Regular physical activity can also help improve your general health.
Don't be scared to exercise. Exercise is good for anyone with kidney disease, however severe.
Not only will it boost your energy, help you sleep, strengthen your bones, ward off depression and keep you fit, it may also reduce your risk of problems such as heart disease.
If you have mild to moderate kidney disease, your ability to exercise shouldn't be reduced. You should be able to exercise as often and as vigorously as someone the same age as you with healthy kidneys.
If your condition is more advanced or you're already on dialysis, your ability to exercise is likely to be reduced, and you may become breathless and tired more quickly.
But don't be deterred – exercise is still beneficial. Make sure you start slowly and build up gradually. Check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise programme.
If you smoke, stopping smoking can improve your overall health and reduce your risk of many other health problems.
You may still be able to drink alcohol if you have kidney disease, but it's advisable not to exceed the recommended limits of more than 14 alcohol units a week.
Speak to your GP or care team if you find it difficult to cut down the amount of alcohol you drink.
Read some tips on cutting down on alcohol.
Kidney disease can put a significant strain on your body and make you more vulnerable to infections.
You can get these vaccinations at your GP surgery or a local pharmacy that offers a vaccination service.
You'll have regular contact with your care team to monitor your condition.
These appointments may involve:
It's also a good opportunity to ask any questions you have or raise any other issues you'd like to discuss with your care team.
You may also want to help monitor your condition at home – for example, by using a home blood pressure monitor.
Contact your GP or care team if your symptoms are getting worse or you develop new symptoms.
Coming to terms with a condition such as kidney disease can put a strain on you, your family and your friends. It can be difficult to talk to people about your condition, even if they're close to you.
Learning about kidney disease often helps because you and your family will understand more about what to expect and feel more in control of the illness, instead of feeling that your lives are now dominated by kidney disease and its treatment.
Be open about how you feel, and let your family and friends know what they can do to help. However, do not feel shy about telling them that you need some time to yourself, if that is what you need.
Your GP or care team can reassure you if you have questions about your kidney disease, or you may find it helpful to talk to a trained counsellor, psychologist or specialist telephone helpline operator. Your GP surgery will have information on these.
Some people find it helpful to talk to other people with kidney disease at a local support group or through an internet chat room.
Having kidney disease can affect your sexual relationships. Some couples become closer after a diagnosis of kidney disease, while others find their loved ones are affected by worries about how they'll cope with the effects of the illness.
Both men and women may experience issues about body image and self-esteem, and this can affect the relationship.
Try to share your feelings with your partner. If you have problems with sex that do not get better with time, speak to your care team. Treatment and support is available.
If you have mild to moderate kidney disease, it's unlikely your condition or its treatment will affect your chances of having children.
More advanced kidney disease may affect women's periods and reduce a man's sperm count, which can make it more difficult to get pregnant, although this doesn't mean you won't be able to have a child.
It's important to use contraception if you don't want to get pregnant.
If you do want to try for a baby, it's a good idea to speak to your care team for advice first. There may be risks to mother and baby, and changes to your treatment or check-ups may be necessary.
If you're well enough, you can keep working for as long as you feel able.
Talk to your employer as soon as you feel your condition is affecting your ability to do your job so you can find a solution that suits both of you. For example, it may be possible for you to work part-time.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to working practices or premises to help a person with a disability.
This might, where possible, include changing or modifying tasks, altering work patterns, installing special equipment, allowing time off to attend appointments, or helping with travel to work.
If you have to stop work or work part-time because of your kidney disease, you may find it hard to cope financially.
You may be entitled to one or more of the following types of financial support:
If you have mild kidney disease or you've had a transplant, going on holiday shouldn't pose additional health problems, whether you're staying in the UK or going abroad.
The British Kidney Patient Association can support people with kidney disease wanting to get away for a break.
Speak to your care team before you travel, and make sure you bring enough medication with you to cover your trip and some back-up medication in case you end up needing to stay away from home for longer than planned.
If you're on dialysis, you can still enjoy holidays provided you book your treatment before you go away.
If you want to travel to another part of the UK, discuss your plans with your renal unit as early as you can so they can arrange dialysis at a unit close to your destination.
In many parts of the country, the lack of facilities restricts the freedom of patients to travel, but Dialysis Freedom runs a holiday dialysis "swap" scheme to help with dialysis availability in other areas.
If you're going abroad, it can be easier to arrange dialysis at short notice as some overseas centres have more facilities, although holiday destinations may get booked up early.
The NHS will look after you if you get ill while on holiday in the UK. If you're in Europe, the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) entitles you to free or reduced-cost hospital treatment.
It's a good idea to take out holiday health insurance in addition to carrying the EHIC. Anyone with kidney disease should declare it as a pre-existing medical condition on standard insurance application forms. It may exclude you from some policies.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) can't always be prevented, but you can take steps to reduce the chances of getting the condition.
Following the advice below can reduce your risk.
Follow the advice of your GP, take any medication you're prescribed and keep all appointments relating to your condition.
Stopping smoking will improve your general health and reduce your risk of these serious conditions.
The NHS smoking helpline can offer you advice and encouragement to help you quit smoking. Call 0300 123 1044 or visit the NHS Smokefree website.
Read more about stopping smoking.
A balanced diet can reduce your risk of kidney disease by keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol at a healthy level.
A balanced diet should include:
You should also limit the amount of salt in your diet to no more than 6g (0.2oz) a day. Too much salt can increase your blood pressure.
Read more about salt in your diet.
Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can cause your blood pressure and cholesterol levels to rise to unhealthy levels.
Sticking to the recommended alcohol limits is the best way to reduce your risk:
Fourteen units is equivalent to six pints of average-strength beer or 10 small glasses of low-strength wine.
Read more about alcohol units.
Regular exercise should help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing kidney disease.
At least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as cycling or fast walking every week is recommended.
Read more about health and fitness.
If you need to take painkillers, make sure you follow the instructions that come with the medication.
Peter Wilkinson has had a varied life. He started as an apprentice in the Royal Navy and later took a series of jobs in agriculture and the building trade.
Partly because of problems with his physical health, he decided on a change in career and qualified as a teacher. A couple of years later he began to notice he was becoming very tired.
He had been diagnosed with diabetes when he was 23, and had taken daily injections of insulin – and more recently been using an insulin pump – ever since.
But this feeling of tiredness was new. At first he put it down to the demands of his new job, but eventually saw his doctor about his symptoms. Peter's doctor sent him for tests and investigations at his local hospital.
He says: "I was admitted to hospital for an endoscopy investigation, as my doctor thought I might have a problem in my intestines. I had some standard blood tests, and when the results came back they showed high calcium levels. I was told I had acute kidney failure."
It turned out Peter's immune system, the body's system for fighting infection, had started to attack his own kidney. This process, called autoimmunity, is a common cause of kidney disease.
Soon after Peter found out his kidney disease was serious. "I was told I was eventually going to lose my kidneys."
Since diagnosis, he has been able to keep his kidney disease stable by controlling his blood pressure with a combination of three different treatments.
His tiredness has become worse and worse, and he has had to give up teaching. "I have to have an afternoon nap every day because I just run out of energy."
Peter has stage 4-5 chronic kidney disease and will eventually need dialysis on an artificial kidney machine. He will also probably need a transplant.
"I'm lucky because I have siblings, so I hope, when the time comes, I will be able to have a living donation from one of them," he says.
Peter lives in Trimdon Station near Sedgefield and is a member of the North East Kidney Patients Association, part of the National Kidney Federation. He says talking to other people with kidney disease has been a great help in coming to terms with his condition.
"It's not great to know that things aren't going to get better. But my condition is at least stable, and talking to other people makes me realise it can be stable for many years. That's good to know.
"But I also know that my condition will get worse and I will need dialysis. I now know what to expect."
Diabetes left Kalwant in need of a new kidney and pancreas. She was lucky and, after a month on the transplant list, was given a new lease of life.
"I became diabetic at the age of 18 and, although I knew there could be complications in 20 to 25 years, it didn't mean much to me at that age.
"When I began to put on weight, I thought it was connected to my thyroid, which had given me trouble since I'd had part of it removed at the age of 16. I thought my thyroid drugs needed adjusting.
"Then I started feeling breathless and very lethargic, and my feet and body started to retain water. My GP told me my kidney function was starting to deteriorate because of my diabetes.
"A few years later, it had become so bad that I had to start dialysis. I had to go to the hospital three times a week, usually for more than five hours. My health worsened. I could hardly walk and I was being sick all the time. I had to rest a lot.
"I wasn't able to spend enough time with my daughters, and I wasn't well enough to have a transplant. This was the hardest time for me. It was only my family and my strong Sikh faith that kept me going.
"Gradually, my health began to settle down and I was feeling better. After vigorous tests, I was put on the transplant list for a kidney and a pancreas.
"To my surprise, I didn't have to wait long. At 10.45pm on June 1, I got a call from Liverpool to say they had organs for me. I was having tests at the hospital by 7am the next morning and, a few hours later, had the operation.
"The transplant completely changed my life. We became a family again, and I have made the most of every single day. I feel I have been given the gift of a new life."
Mohamed Nanji's kidney problems started when he was a teenager in Kenya. Although he's been living with a transplanted kidney for more than 10 years, it hasn't been easy.
"When I was a teenager in Kenya, I kept getting repeated infections. The doctors discovered that my right kidney had two tubes connecting it to the bladder, rather than one. This put pressure on my back and gave me the infections.
"I was told to look after myself and I would be all right. I am a clinical scientist and I came to study in the UK. I had my kidney function tested regularly at Guy's Hospital in London, but gradually it got worse.
"I was told by the doctors at Guy's that I was getting to the point where I would soon need a transplant or dialysis. My sister was my only relation and she agreed to donate a kidney. She was quite happy about it at the time and was a perfect match.
"A year later, they told me I should ask my sister to come to the UK because I would have to have the transplant within a few weeks. When I contacted her, she didn't get back to me. A couple of months later, I phoned again and she told me she had changed her mind. She didn't give any reason.
"It was obviously very upsetting, but the whole situation was made worse because she didn't let me know until the last minute. I hadn't planned to start dialysis because my sister was such a perfect match for transplant, but I had no choice.
"When I went to the hospital to have my first dialysis, the doctors found that I was at the end stage of renal failure and admitted me straight away. I had a traumatic two weeks in hospital as they tried to keep me alive. I suffered bleeding episodes that lasted up to 12 hours and I grew very weak.
"Eventually, I was able to leave. I continued working as best I could and soon began doing my dialysis at home. It was difficult, but better than going to the hospital three times a week until 4am.
"Later the next year, my strength had returned and I went on the transplant list. In December, I was called in to have the operation, but it didn't go smoothly. I had to go back into the operating theatre three times because there was so much bleeding.
"The doctors thought the surgery had failed and were about to put me back on dialysis when suddenly the kidney began to work. Years later, it's still going strong. Now, I live a normal life again."