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Kidney Failure: Could It Happen To You?


Following the hospitalization of 31-one-year-old TV presenter Nick Cannon for kidney failure, and reports from his wife Mariah Carey via Tweet that he is in “a lot of pain,” you may wonder, What is kidney failure? Could it happen to you?

Kidney failure requires immediate attention

The main function of the kidneys is to eliminate excess fluid, electrolytes (salts), and waste from the blood. When kidneys lose their ability to perform this vital filtering and cleansing process, dangerous levels of these products accumulate in the body.

Acute kidney failure can develop within just a few hours or a few days and requires immediate medical attention. Left untreated, kidney failure can be fatal. The good news, however, is that prompt treatment can reverse acute kidney failure.

Signs and symptoms of acute kidney failure

Although there are some definitive signs and symptoms of acute kidney failure, not everyone experiences them. However, the following signs and symptoms should be followed up with a healthcare professional

  • Reduction in urine output (but some people continue to have normal output)
  • Fluid retention, with swelling of the feet, ankles, and legs
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue and drowsiness
  • Nosebleeds
  • Confusion and/or changes in mood or mental status
  • Nausea
  • Pain or pressure in the chest and/or between the ribs and hips
  • Seizures
  • Bloody stools
  • Odorous breath and/or metallic taste in mouth

Why people get kidney failure

Acute kidney failure can occur for three main reasons. Here are each of the three reasons and some of the conditions that can cause them.

  • Damage to the kidneys. Causes include infection, lupus, medication use (chemotherapy drugs, antibiotics, zoledronic acid [Reclast, Zometa]), blood clots, cholesterol that blocks blood flow in the kidneys, hemolytic uremic syndrome, vasculitis, toxins (alcohol, cocaine, heavy metals), scleroderma, and multiple myeloma
  • Slowed blood flow to the kidneys. This can be caused by blood loss, heart disease, use of blood pressure medications or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, infection, severe burns, severe dehydration, liver cirrhosis, and severe allergic reaction
  • Waste products filtered by the kidneys can’t leave the body through urine. This blockage could be caused by cancer (bladder, cervical, colon, prostate), blood clots in the urinary tract, enlarged prostate, kidney stones, nerve damage to nerves that control the bladder

Are you at risk for kidney failure?

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Your chances of experiencing kidney failure increase greatly if you have another medical condition or if you have been hospitalized, especially if you have been in intensive care. Risk factors for acute kidney failure include advanced age, peripheral artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney diseases, and liver diseases. Use of zoledronic acid if you have impaired kidneys may result in kidney failure.

There has been no specific information about what caused Nick Cannon’s current bout with kidney failure. Clues about his treatment, gathered from Tweets from both Mariah and Nick and a photo released by Mariah, suggest he is receiving fluids and is being monitored.

Acute cases of kidney failure can be treated by addressing the possible cause(s), such as ceasing use of certain medications, aggressively treating a medical condition that contributes to the kidney failure, removing toxins from the blood, and giving intravenous fluids, such as calcium or glucose, to avoid dangerous rises in blood potassium levels.

In some patients, dialysis is recommended or necessary, especially if potassium levels become too high. Dialysis may also be started if urination stops, you retain too much fluid, or if mental status changes.

All such treatments require hospitalization, as in Nick Cannon’s case. The good news about acute kidney failure is that prompt treatment can result in full recovery, especially in otherwise healthy individuals, and normal kidney function may be restored.

National Center for Biotechnology Information
National Institutes of Health