Chronic Kidney Disease Signs, Symptoms, Risk Factors and Tests

Jake Newby

| 4 min read

Individuals with chronic kidney disease (CKD) often don’t know they have it until the damage is severe.
CKD involves a gradual loss of kidney function. Kidneys function as a filter system when they are working properly, removing waste and excess water from the blood and urine. The kidneys are also responsible for:
  • Balancing important minerals in the body
  • Helping create red blood cells
  • Keeping bones healthy
  • Maintaining blood pressure
There are five stages of CKD (Stage 1 through Stage 5). As the stages progress, the kidneys have more difficulty maintaining these functions.

Signs and symptoms of chronic kidney disease

CKD usually develops very slowly, so you may not even know you have it until the kidneys are at Stage 4 or Stage 5. According to the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) you need abnormal kidney lab tests for at least three months prior to diagnosing CKD. This is why it is so important to be screened.
Once the more advanced stages and/or complications develop, they may include:
  • Changes with frequency of urination (more or less)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Fatigue, weakness and lack of mental clarity
  • Foamy urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Numbness or swelling of the feet and ankles
  • Shortness of breath if fluid accumulates in the lungs
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss without trying to lose weight

Causes and risk factors of chronic kidney disease

CKD can impact anyone, regardless of age. But these common causes and risk factors may put you at a higher risk of being diagnosed with the disease:
  • Type 1 or type 2 Diabetes
  • Family history of CKD or kidney failure
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Personal history of acute kidney injury (AKI)
  • Smoking and/or tobacco use
Some of the less common causes for CKD include:
  • Autoimmune conditions: lupus (lupus nephritis)
  • Glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidneys)
  • Kidney stones
  • Polycystic kidney disease or other inherited kidney diseases
  • Prolonged obstruction of the urinary tract and long-lasting urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can be caused by an enlarged prostate, kidney stones and some cancers
  • Recurrent kidney infection (pyelonephritis)
  • Severe infections like sepsis and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)
  • Urinary tract abnormalities before birth are a few other causes.

How is chronic kidney disease diagnosed?

Some of aforementioned symptoms of CKD are nonspecific, meaning a person developing the disease can associate common issues like nausea or itchy skin, for example, with other health conditions. According to the NKF, 37 million American adults live with chronic kidney disease (CKD) and about 90% of them don’t even know they have it. That’s why it’s crucial to get tested, so you can avoid the later, more debilitating stages of CKD.
Doctors and Advanced Practice Providers rely on blood and urine tests to diagnose chronic kidney disease.
The blood test is called the estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR): An eGFR is an estimate of how well your kidneys are working. Serum creatinine level, age, and sex are used to calculate your estimated GFR number. The numbered result varies based on age and sex. As CKD progresses, your number decreases.
The urine test is called the urine albumin-creatinine ratio (uACR): This urine test measures two substances in your urine and compares them with each other:
  1. Albumin: This protein is found in the blood and helps repair tissue, build muscle and fight infection, but it should either not be found, or a very small amount should be found in the urine. One of the earliest signs of kidney disease is when albumin leaks into your urine; this is called albuminuria.
  2. Creatinine: A waste product that comes from normal muscle tissue breakdown.

When to see a doctor for chronic kidney disease

Make an appointment with your primary care provider if you have experience any of the signs or symptoms of kidney disease listed above. Early detection can help prevent kidney disease from progressing to kidney failure.
If you have a medical condition that puts you at higher risk of CKD, your PCP may monitor your blood pressure and test kidney function with urine and blood tests. They may also refer you to a kidney specialist or Nephrologist, if further diagnostic testing and/or treatment recommendations are needed.
Related reading:
Photo credit: Getty Images

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