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Medically reviewed by Kashif J. Piracha, MD

Kidney failure—also known as end-stage renal disease—occurs when your kidneys aren't able to function properly. The purpose of your kidneys is to remove excess fluids and waste from your body. You are at an increased risk of developing kidney failure gradually if you have chronic kidney disease. But sometimes, symptoms can appear suddenly due to kidney damage or infection.

Most people who have chronic kidney disease don’t notice any symptoms. But, as kidney failure progresses, you might experience symptoms such as swelling in your arms and legs, fatigue, and nausea or vomiting. In some cases, kidney failure can lead to more serious symptoms, like seizures or abnormal heart rhythms.

Keep in mind: kidney failure is fatal if your condition is left untreated. That's why knowing the symptoms and understanding when to seek medical attention is so important.

Electrolyte Changes

Your kidneys help regulate small, charged particles in your blood, called electrolytes. However, when your kidneys start to fail, this process becomes difficult and can lead to a variety of electrolyte problems, such as:

Electrolyte Problem


Elevated potassium

Muscle weakness, nerve tingling, or abnormal heart rhythms

Low sodium

Confusion or seizures

Calcium and phosphorus abnormalities

Weakened bones and increased risk for heart problems

Changes in magnesium levels

Increases overall risk of death

Blood Problems

Your kidneys normally produce an important hormone called erythropoietin that helps create red blood cells in your body. When your kidneys start dysfunctioning, your body isn't able to produce the right amount of red blood cells, which can lead to a condition called anemia that causes symptoms such as:

Kidney failure can also cause problems with your blood platelets, which help your blood clot properly. Changes to your platelet count can increase your risk of internal bleeding and easy bruising on the skin.

Fluid Imbalances

Because your kidneys aren't able to remove excess fluid and waste through your urine when they are failing, you may experience symptoms such as:


Uremia is a health complication that occurs when your kidneys aren't able to remove waste properly, resulting in waste being built up in your body. That said, you might experience the following uremia symptoms:

If your kidney failure is left untreated and your body continues to build up waste, you may be at an increased risk of a loss of consciousness, coma, and death.

Symptoms Caused By Kidney Failure Treatment

To directly treat symptoms of kidney failure, your body needs some sort of kidney replacement therapy—which usually comes in the form of a kidney transplant or dialysis.

After a successful kidney transplant, symptoms of kidney failure should go away. However, you may have other side effects or complications from your surgery or from the medications you will need to take long-term after treatment.

Many people on dialysis notice that some symptoms start to improve fairly quickly, like swelling in their extremities (arms and legs). However, people on dialysis may have some residual symptoms after starting treatment, because dialysis can’t completely do everything that your kidneys normally do.

It's possible to experience the following symptoms after receiving treatment for kidney failure:

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for people with chronic conditions (like kidney failure) that require long-term treatment (such as dialysis) to experience changes in their mental health. Research shows that being on dialysis may also increase your risk of developing depression, which may cause symptoms such as overwhelming sadness, loss of joy in activities, and changes in sleep patterns.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have chronic kidney disease or a family history of kidney problems, it's a good idea to communicate your concerns and stay in touch with your healthcare provider. Having a chronic condition can feel scary and frustrating—and it's OK to feel how you feel.

However, speaking up when you need support and seeking proper treatment is essential. Not only can this slow the progression of your disease, but also improve your quality of life. You should seek out medical care from your provider if you:

  • Develop symptoms of kidney disease

  • Experience a sudden onset of kidney failure symptoms

  • Notice changes to your overall health

It may also help to keep a note or journal of when you experience symptoms, how long they last, and how severe they are. This can help your provider figure out how to move forward with treatment options that are right for you.

A Quick Review

Kidney failure occurs when your kidneys aren't functioning as well as they should be. This can disrupt your body's ability to eliminate waste and excess fluids. As a result of kidney failure, you can experience a variety of symptoms that affect multiple organs.

It may be common to have muscle weakness, fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling in your arms and legs, trouble focusing, and nausea or vomiting, among other symptoms. Your symptoms may also worsen as your condition progresses.

Unfortunately, kidney failure can be fatal if left untreated. That's why getting the medical care you need is vital. Fortunately, treatment options such as a transplant or dialysis can help reduce symptoms and prolong life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does kidney failure begin?

Sometimes kidney failure begins suddenly (e.g., infection or trauma to kidneys). But more commonly, kidney failure happens in people who have chronic kidney disease. The kidneys gradually get more damaged over time until they are working very little or not at all.

What color is urine when your kidneys are failing?

People with kidney failure sometimes have dark-colored urine. However, having this color of urine doesn’t necessarily mean you have kidney failure, and you still might have kidney failure even if your urine is a typical color.

Can a person recover from kidney failure?

Sometimes people fully recover from kidney failure if they've had something that caused sudden damage to their kidneys. However, chronic kidney failure is unlikely to be reversed.

Can I live a long life with kidney failure?

Without treatment, kidney failure is fatal. On average, people live for 5 to 10 years after starting dialysis for kidney failure. However, some people live much longer than that, depending on their medical situation, treatment plan, and lifestyle habits.

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