Chronic kidney disease is a condition characterised by the progressive loss of the kidneys’ ability to function.

The kidneys are the body’s filtration system, removing waste products from the blood that are then excreted in urine. When the kidneys don’t function as they should, this waste can build up in the body, leading to dangerous health complications.

Kidney disease is seen as chronic when it develops slowly over years – in these cases the main kidney disease causes are diabetes mellitus, high blood pressure (hypertension), glomerulonephritis (a type of inflammatory kidney disease) or they are idiopathic (unknown).

Immune conditions, congenital defects and toxin exposure are just a few of the other causes of deterioration in these organs.

What are its symptoms?

Kidney disease symptoms can develop very slowly, only setting in by the stage where kidney function is greatly reduced. Possible signs of chronic kidney disease include:

  • Increased blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling of the legs or puffiness of the eyes (all the result of fluid retention)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Appetite loss
  • Decreased alertness
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Itching skin
  • Muscle twitching and cramps
  • Poor blood clotting
  • Frequent need to urinate.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will perform a few crucial tests to reach a kidney disease diagnosis, which may include:

  • Urinalysis is an important test for the diagnosis of kidney disease, as abnormalities of red and white blood cells in the urine point to the waste filtering system of the kidneys not functioning as its meant to.
  • Testing the creatinine levels of the blood offers another important clue as to the health of the kidneys: high levels indicate that the kidneys aren’t excreting waste as well as they should be.
  • Imaging tests such as ultrasound can give doctors a better idea of the structure of the kidneys.
  • Finally, a biopsy in which a tissue sample from the kidneys is examined under a microscope may sometimes be necessary to help determine the cause of the kidney damage.

What are your treatment options?

Kidney disease treatment depends on the disease type – some kidney disease can be treated, but there is no cure for chronic damage. As a result, kidney disease management focuses on slowing the progression of the damage and offering symptomatic relief.

Reducing protein in the diet can help to lower waste levels in the blood, easing the burden placed on the organs. When the disease has advanced to the point where the kidneys are unable to function on their own and complete kidney failure has set in, dialysis – which involves a machine artificially filtering waste products out of the blood – or kidney transplant are the only treatment options.

Can it be prevented?

Kidney disease prevention may not always be possible, but you can take steps to minimise your risk. The first step is to effectively manage other chronic conditions such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, or hypertension (high blood pressure) – all of which can damage your kidneys if not treated appropriately.

It’s also essential not to smoke and to limit your alcohol intake, as these are modifiable lifestyle factors that place strain on the kidneys.

Misusing medication can also damage the kidneys, so always use medication, even over-the-counter ones as per the package instructions or those given to you by your healthcare provider.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015