Acute kidney failure

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Acute kidney failure is the rapid (less than 2 days) loss of your kidneys' ability to remove waste and help balance fluids and electrolytes in your body.

Alternative Names

Kidney failure; Renal failure; Renal failure - acute; ARF; Kidney injury - acute


There are many possible causes of kidney damage. They include:

  • Acute tubular necrosis (ATN)
  • Autoimmune kidney disease
  • Blood clot from cholesterol (cholesterol emboli)
  • Decreased blood flow due to very low blood pressure, which can result from , , hemorrhage, injury, , serious illness, or surgery
  • Disorders that cause clotting within the kidney blood vessels
  • Infections that directly injure the kidney, such as acute pyelonephritis or septicemia
  • Pregnancy complications, including or
  • Urinary tract blockage
  • Illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroine
  • Medicines including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), certain antibiotics and blood pressure medicines, intravenous contrast (dye), some cancer and HIV drugs


Symptoms of acute kidney failure may include any of the following:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will examine you.

Tests to check how well your kidneys are working include:

Other blood tests may be done to find the underlying cause of kidney failure.

A kidney or abdominal ultrasound is the preferred test for diagnosing a blockage in the urinary tract. X-ray, CT scan, or MRI of the abdomen can also tell if there is a blockage.


Once the cause is found, the goal of treatment is to help your kidneys work again and prevent fluid and waste from building up in your body while they heal. Usually, you will have to stay overnight in the hospital for treatment.

The amount of liquid you drink will be limited to the amount of urine you can produce. You will be told what you may and may not eat to reduce the buildup of toxins that the kidneys would normally remove. Your diet may need to be high in

and low in , salt, and potassium.

You may need antibiotics to treat or prevent infection. Water pills (diuretics) may be used to help remove fluid from your body.

Medicines will be given through a vein to help control your blood potassium level.

You may need dialysis. This is a treatment that does what healthy kidneys normally do -- rid the body of harmful wastes, extra salt, and water. Dialysis can save your life if your potassium levels are dangerously high. Dialysis will also be used if:

  • Your mental status changes
  • You develop pericarditis
  • You retain too much fluid
  • You cannot remove nitrogen waste products from your body

Dialysis will most often be short term. In some cases, the kidney damage is so great that dialysis is needed permanently.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if your urine output slows or stops or you have other symptoms of acute kidney failure.


To prevent acute kidney failure:

  • Health problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes should be well controlled.
  • Avoid drugs and medicines that can cause kidney injury.


Devarajan P. Biomarkers for assessment of renal function during acute kidney injury. In: Alpern RJ, Moe OW, Caplan M, eds. Seldin and Giebisch's The Kidney. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2013:chap 75.

Molitoris BA. Acute kidney injury. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 120.

Sharfuddin AA, Weisbord SD, Palevsky PM, Molitoris BA. Acute kidney injury. In: Skorecki K, Chertow GM, Marsden PA, Taal MW, Yu ASL, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 31.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 5/10/2016
  • Walead Latif, MD, nephrologist, Clinical Associate Professor, Rutgers Medical School, Newark, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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