Kidney Failure: Symptoms & Signs

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Medically Reviewed on 1/8/2019

Kidney failure occurs when the kidneys are unable to fully function to filter waste and excrete fluids and waste. Initially, kidney failure may cause no symptoms. Many symptoms and signs of kidney failure are due to the buildup of waste products and fluid retention in the body. Symptoms and signs can include edema (swelling), weakness, shortness of breath, confusion, and lethargy. Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) can occur due to an inability to remove potassium from the bloodstream. Kidney failure may be due to sudden (acute) events or may come on over the long term (chronic) as a complication of conditions like diabetes or hypertension.

Causes of kidney failure

Kidney failure can occur from an acute event (acute renal failure) or a chronic condition or disease (chronic renal failure). Prerenal kidney failure refers to causes of renal failure due to a decrease in blood supply to the kidney. These causes include blood loss, dehydration, or medications. Some of the causes of kidney failure related to problems with the kidneys themselves include sepsis, medications, rhabdomyolysis, multiple myeloma, and acute glomerulonephritis. Post-renal causes of kidney failure are conditions that cause obstruction to the outflow of urine and include bladder obstruction, prostate problems, tumors, or kidney stones.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 1/8/2019

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