Kidney Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are the signs of kidney problems?

Kidney symptoms are signs of abnormalities in kidney function. The kidneys are responsible for filtering waste out of the bloodstream. Healthy kidneys function continuously and the body’s total blood supply passes through the kidneys several times each minute. The healthy body can continue to function with only one good kidney, as happens when a person volunteers to be a living kidney donor.

When the kidneys become damaged, infected or inflamed, they can lose some of that filtering ability. This can lead to changes in urination and a buildup of waste products in the blood, which can affect the entire body.

Kidney symptoms can be either systemic or kidney specific. Common kidney symptoms include changes in urine output; pain or burning with urination; changes in the color, smell, or appearance of urine; or pain in the sides or abdomen. Systemic (whole body) kidney symptoms include fatigue, weakness, a general ill feeling, confusion, swelling (edema), or changes in consciousness. Kidney symptoms range from very mild to very severe and even life threatening.

Kidney symptoms and their treatment will depend on the underlying disease or disorder. Common disorders of the kidneys include glomerulonephritis (kidney inflammation), pyelonephritis (kidney infection), and kidney cysts. In many cases, kidney symptoms will resolve once the underlying disorder has been treated.

One of the most successful techniques for preventing kidney symptoms is to consume an adequate amount of fluid. For mild kidney symptoms, over-the-counter medications or home remedies, such as hot pads, may be useful.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious kidney symptoms, including loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment; confusion; severe side or flank pain; inability to urinate; or high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit).

If your kidney symptoms are persistent or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with kidney symptoms?

Kidney symptoms may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that affect the kidneys frequently affect the entire body, as they allow waste to build up in the blood stream.

Kidney-specific symptoms that may occur along with other kidney symptoms

Multiple symptoms affecting the kidneys may occur at once including:

  • Changes in urine color
  • Changes in urine composition
  • Foul-smelling urine
  • Frequent urination that often produces only a small amount of urine
  • Low urine output
  • Pain of the back, sides or abdomen
  • Pain or burning with urination

Other symptoms that may occur along with kidney symptoms

Kidney symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems or the entire body including:

  • Dizziness upon attempted standing
  • Edema (swelling)
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling very thirsty
  • General ill feeling
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, kidney symptoms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Inability to urinate
  • Severe side or flank pain

What causes kidney symptoms?

Kidney symptoms can be caused by any sort of injury or damage to the kidneys. Often, the kidneys are damaged by injury, infection, inflammation, or high blood pressure. If the volume of blood that passes through the kidneys is too high or too low, it can interfere with the kidneys’ ability to filter out waste.

Common causes of kidney symptoms

Kidney symptoms may be caused by a variety of common disorders or conditions including:

Less common causes of kidney symptoms

Kidney symptoms can also be caused by a variety of less common conditions including:

  • Benign or malignant tumors

  • Birth defects involving the kidneys

  • Certain environmental toxins, such as heavy metals or organic solvents

  • Certain genetic conditions, including polycystic kidney disease (genetic condition characterized by multiple cysts within the kidneys)

  • Certain medications, including aminoglycoside antibiotics, such as gentamycin; chemotherapeutic drugs for cancer; or intravenous contrast material for imaging studies

  • Reflux nephropathy (damage to kidneys due to backflow of urine)

Serious or life-threatening causes of kidney symptoms

In some cases, kidney symptoms may be symptoms of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Kidney failure

  • Uremia (buildup of nitrogen waste in the blood)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of kidney symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your kidney symptoms including:

  • What kidney symptoms do you have?

  • When did you first notice your kidney symptoms?

  • How long have you felt these symptoms?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Do you have any pain?

  • Have you had any changes in urination?

  • How much fluid do you consume every day?

  • What does your regular diet include?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of kidney symptoms?

Because the kidneys filter waste out of the blood, diseases that affect the kidneys can affect the entire body. Kidney symptoms can be progressive (start mildly and become severe). Because kidney symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 1
View All Kidneys and the Urinary System Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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