Acute Kidney Failure

Acute kidney failure is when your kidneys stop working suddenly. Doctors sometimes call it acute renal failure. It can happen over just a few hours or days.

Causes of Acute Kidney Failure

Something is changing the way blood flows through to your kidneys. It could be because of:

  • An infection

  • Liver failure

  • Medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or COX-2 inhibitors like Celebrex)

  • Blood pressure medications

  • Heart failure

  • Serious burns or dehydration

  • Blood or fluid loss

You have a condition that’s blocking urine from leaving your kidneys. This could mean:

  • Bladder, cervical, colon, or prostate cancer

  • Blood clots in your urinary tract

  • An enlarged prostate

  • Kidney stones

  • Nerve damage in your bladder

Something has directly damaged your kidneys, like:

  • Blood clots

  • Cholesterol deposits

  • Medications that can directly damage kidneys, including NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen, chemotherapy, and antibiotics

  • Glomerulonephritis (inflamed kidney filters, this can be caused by an infection, autoimmune disease (like lupus, vasculitis, and scleroderma), multiple myeloma, chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, or other toxins)

Symptoms of Acute Kidney Failure

  • Peeing less than normal

  • Swelling in your legs, ankles, and feet (caused by your body holding on to fluid)

  • Feeling drowsy or very tired

  • Shortness of breath

  • Itching

  • Joint pain, swelling

  • Loss of appetite

  • Confusion

  • Throwing up or feeling like you’re going to

  • Chest pain or pressure

  • Muscle twitching

  • Seizures or coma (in severe cases)

  • Stomach and back pain

  • Fever

  • Rash

  • Nosebleed

Diagnosis of Acute Kidney Failure

Blood tests

  • Creatinine is a waste product in your blood that’s made by muscle activity. Normally, it’s removed from your blood by your kidneys. But if your kidneys stop working, your creatinine level rises.

  • Urea nitrogen is another waste product in your blood. It’s created when protein from the foods is broken down. Like creatinine, your kidneys remove this from your blood. When your kidneys stop working, your urea nitrogen levels rise.

  • Potassium is an electrolyte found in your blood that balances water levels in your bloodstream. Kidney disease can cause either high or low potassium levels.

  • Sodium is an electrolyte that helps with fluid balance in your body. High sodium levels can mean that your kidneys aren’t working properly because your body can’t get rid of the right amount of sodium.

Urine tests

Your doctor will check your pee for blood and protein. They’ll also look for certain electrolytes. The results help your doctor understand what’s causing your kidney failure.

Kidney biopsy

  • Renal biopsy is a procedure where the doctor pushes a thin needle through your skin and takes a small piece of your kidney to look at under a microscope.

  • It can show if there is any damage or disease in your kidney, and frequently what the cause is.

  • This is typically done only in cases where it is unclear what is causing the kidney failure.

Imaging tests

  • Some tests, like ultrasonography or a CT scan, can show whether your kidneys are enlarged or there’s a blockage in your urine flow.

  • They can also tell your doctor if there is any problem with arteries or veins going in and out of your kidneys.

  • An MRI can show this, too.



  • Your doctor will limit the amount of salt and potassium you get until your kidneys heal.

  • That’s because both of these substances are removed from your body through your kidneys.

  • Changing how and what you eat won’t reverse acute kidney failure.

  • But your doctor may change your diet while they treat the conditions that caused it.

  • This may mean treating a health problem like heart failure, taking you off certain medications, or giving you fluids through an IV if you’re dehydrated.

  • If your doctor has put you on a low potassium diet, you’ll need to cut back on high-potassium foods like bananas, spinach, oranges, potatoes, and tomatoes.

  • On the other hand, you can eat more low-potassium foods like apples, strawberries, grapes, and cauliflower.


Your doctor may prescribe medicines that regulate the amount of phosphorus and potassium in your blood. When your kidneys fail, they can’t remove these substances from your body. Medications won’t help your kidneys, but they may reduce some of the problems kidney failure causes.


If your kidney damage is severe enough, you may require hemodialysis until your kidneys can heal. Dialysis does not help kidneys heal but takes over the work of kidneys until they do. If your kidneys don’t heal, dialysis could be long-term.

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