What is renal failure?

Renal failure refers to temporary or permanent damage to the kidneys that results in loss of normal kidney function. There are two different types of renal failure--acute and chronic. Acute renal failure has an abrupt onset and is potentially reversible. Chronic renal failure progresses slowly over at least three months and can lead to permanent renal failure. The causes, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes of acute and chronic are different.

Conditions that may lead to acute or chronic renal failure may include, but are not limited to, the following:

Acute Renal Failure

Chronic Renal Failure

Myocardial infarction. A heart attack may occasionally lead to temporary kidney failure.

Diabetic nephropathy. Diabetes can cause permanent changes, leading to kidney damage.

Rhabdomyolysis. Kidney damage that can occur from muscle breakdown. This condition can occur from severe dehydration, infection, or other causes.

Hypertension. Chronic high blood pressure (hypertension) can lead to permanent kidney damage.

Decreased blood flow to the kidneys for a period of time. This may occur from blood loss or shock.

Lupus (SLE). A chronic inflammatory/autoimmune disease that can injure the skin, joints, kidneys, and nervous system.

An obstruction or blockage along the urinary tract.

A prolonged urinary tract obstruction or blockage.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome. Usually caused by an E. coli infection, kidney failure develops as a result of obstruction to the small functional structures and vessels inside the kidney.

Alport syndrome. An inherited disorder that causes deafness, progressive kidney damage, and eye defects.

Ingestion of certain medications that may cause toxicity to the kidneys.

Nephrotic syndrome. A condition that has several different causes. Nephrotic syndrome is characterized by protein in the urine, low protein in the blood, high cholesterol levels, and tissue swelling.

Glomerulonephritis. A type of kidney disease that involves glomeruli. During glomerulonephritis, the glomeruli become inflamed and impair the kidney's ability to filter urine. Glomerulonephritis may lead to chronic renal failure in some individuals.

Polycystic kidney disease. A genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous cysts filled with fluid in the kidneys.

Any condition that may impair the flow of oxygen and blood to the kidneys such as cardiac arrest.

Cystinosis. An inherited disorder in which the amino acid cystine (a common protein-building compound) accumulates within specific cellular bodies of the kidney, known as lysosomes.


Interstitial nephritis or pyelonephritis. An inflammation to the small internal structures in the kidney.

What is end-stage renal disease (ESRD)? 

End-stage renal disease is when the kidneys permanently fail to work.

What are the symptoms of renal failure?

The symptoms for acute and chronic renal failure may be different. The following are the most common symptoms of acute and chronic renal failure. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

Acute: (Symptoms of acute renal failure depend largely on the underlying cause.)

  • Hemorrhage

  • Fever

  • Weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Rash

  • Diarrhea or bloody diarrhea

  • Poor appetite

  • Severe vomiting

  • Abdominal pain

  • Back pain

  • Muscle cramps

  • No urine output or high urine output

  • History of recent infection (a risk factor for acute renal failure)

  • Pale skin

  • Nosebleeds

  • History of taking certain medications (a risk factor for acute renal failure)

  • History of trauma (a risk factor for acute renal failure)

  • Swelling of the tissues

  • Inflammation of the eye

  • Detectable abdominal mass

  • Exposure to heavy metals or toxic solvents (a risk factor for acute renal failure)


  • Poor appetite

  • Vomiting

  • Bone pain

  • Headache

  • Insomnia

  • Itching

  • Dry skin

  • Malaise

  • Fatigue with light activity

  • Muscle cramps

  • High urine output or no urine output

  • Recurrent urinary tract infections

  • Urinary incontinence

  • Pale skin

  • Bad breath

  • Hearing deficit

  • Detectable abdominal mass

  • Tissue swelling

  • Irritability

  • Poor muscle tone

  • Change in mental alertness

  • Metallic taste in mouth

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