What Happens When Kidneys Fail?

Kidneys are responsible for regulating pH, salt, potassium, and more. Various diseases, lifestyle habits, and genetic factors can affect kidney function.

In part 3 of our Kidney Health Basics mini-series, we’re addressing everything you need to know about kidney failure.

Today we’re taking a closer look at how kidney disease, once diagnosed, is treated.

Recap: What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure happens after your kidneys can no longer properly filter your blood. This causes toxins to accumulate in your body. Many things can cause kidney failure, and without prompt treatment, it can be life threatening.

The kidneys are a pair of organs located in the region of your lower back. One kidney is on each side of your spine. Kidney failure occurs when your kidneys lose their ability to sufficiently filter waste from your blood.

Many factors can interfere with your kidney health and function, such as:

  • certain acute and chronic diseases
  • toxic exposure to environmental pollutants or certain medications
  • severe dehydration
  • insufficient blood flow to the kidneys
  • kidney trauma

If your kidneys aren’t able to function properly, your body becomes overloaded with toxins. This can lead to kidney failure, which can be life threatening if left untreated.

In-depth symptoms of kidney failure

We covered a lot of ground in our Kidney Disease: Failure, Treatment and Outlook article, but there are additional, more specific signs you might be experiencing kidney failure.

As kidney disease progresses, possible symptoms may include:

  • a reduced amount of urine
  • swelling of your legs, ankles, and feet from retention of fluids caused by the failure of the kidneys to eliminate water waste
  • unexplained shortness of breath
  • excessive drowsiness or fatigue
  • persistent nausea
  • confusion
  • pain or pressure in your chest
  • seizures
  • coma

Ceramic toilet bowl in a dimly lit room

Kidney failure and urine

Unpleasant as it may be to discuss, urine is a crucial indicator of kidney problems—and there’s a lot to learn from it.

Urine color

The color of your urine is a small window into your body’s health. It doesn’t tell you much about the state of your kidney function until damage to the kidneys has progressed.

Still, urine color changes may be a warning sign of some issues.

Clear or Pale Yellow

Clear or pale yellow urine indicates you’re well hydrated. This is the ideal color in most cases.

Dark Yellow or Amber

You may be dehydrated. Try drinking more water and cutting down on dark sodas, tea, or coffee.


This could be a sign of dehydration, or it might be a sign of bile in your bloodstream. Kidney disease doesn’t typically cause this.

Pink or Red

Urine with a pink tint or a bit of red could have blood in it. It could also be caused by certain foods, like beets or strawberries. A quick urine test can tell the difference.


Urine with excess bubbles is a sign that it likely has a lot of protein in it. Protein in urine is a sign of kidney disease.

Urine elimination problems

When your body can’t eliminate urine, toxins build up and overload the kidneys. Some cancers can block the urine passageways, such as:

  • prostate, which the American Cancer Society says is the most common type in men
  • colon
  • cervical
  • bladder

Other conditions can interfere with urination and possibly lead to kidney failure, including:

  • kidney stones
  • enlarged prostate
  • blood clots within your urinary tract
  • damage to the nerves that control your bladder

Chronic kidney disease stages

Kidney disease is classified into five stages. These range from very mild (stage 1) to complete kidney failure (stage 5). Symptoms and complications increase as the stages progress.

Stage 1

This stage is very mild. You may experience no symptoms and have no visible complications. Some kidney damage is present.

It’s still possible to manage and slow progression by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and not using tobacco products. Maintaining a moderate weight is important, too.

If you have diabetes, it’s important to manage your blood sugar.

Stage 2

Stage 2 kidney disease is still considered a mild form, but detectable issues like protein in urine or physical damage to the kidneys may be more obvious.

The same lifestyle approaches that helped in stage 1 are still used in stage 2. It’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor about other risk factors that could make the disease progress more rapidly, such as heart disease, inflammation, and blood disorders.

Stage 3

At this stage, your kidneys aren’t working as well as they should.

Stage 3 kidney disease is sometimes divided into stages 3a and 3b. A blood test that measures the amount of waste products in your body helps doctors differentiate between the two.

Symptoms may become more apparent at this stage. Swelling in hands and feet, back pain, and changes to urination frequency are likely.

Lifestyle approaches may help improve symptoms. Your doctor may also consider medications to treat underlying conditions that could speed up kidney failure.

Stage 4

Stage 4 kidney disease is considered moderate to severe. The kidneys aren’t working well, but you’re not in complete kidney failure yet. Symptoms can include complications like anemia, high blood pressure, and bone disease.

A healthy lifestyle is still vital. Your doctor will likely develop a treatment plan designed to slow kidney damage.

Stage 5

In stage 5, your kidneys are nearing or in complete failure. Symptoms of the loss of kidney function will be evident, such as vomiting and nausea, trouble breathing, itchy skin, and more.

At this stage, you’ll need regular dialysis or a kidney transplant.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases estimates that approximately 1 in 500 Americans is living with stage 5 kidney failure.


Kidney failure can lead to various complications, such as:


When your kidneys aren’t working properly, your body may not be able to properly create red blood cells. Anemia is the medical term for a low red blood cell count.

Bone weakness

Damage to your kidneys can disrupt the balance of minerals in your body such as phosphorus and calcium. This imbalance can lead to weakened bones.

Fluid retention

If your kidneys aren’t able to adequately filter water out of your blood, you may be at risk of developing fluid retention, especially in your lower body.

Heart disease

Heart disease can lead to kidney failure, or kidney failure can lead to heart disease. According to a 2018 study, heart disease is the most common cause of death in people on dialysis.


Kidney failure can lead to hyperkalemia, or elevated potassium levels. In extreme cases, hyperkalemia can lead to heart failure.

Metabolic acidosis

Disrupted kidney function can lead to metabolic acidosis, meaning your bodily fluids contain too much acid. Metabolic acidosis can cause complications such as kidney stones or bone disease.

Secondary complications

Many people with kidney failure develop secondary complications such as:

  • depression
  • liver failure
  • fluid buildup in lungs
  • gout
  • nerve damage
  • skin infections

This article was brought to you by the Proactive Health Management Plan in partnership with Healthline.

    Posted at 08:17h, 10 April

    Very interesting information on kidneys

  • Peggy Wright
    Posted at 17:37h, 09 April

    REading this makes me want to drink more water and less tea !

  • D Johnson
    Posted at 22:51h, 07 April


  • Shannon
    Posted at 07:42h, 06 April

    Thank you! Good read

  • Ann L Guetterman
    Posted at 14:36h, 05 April

    Thank you

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