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Kidney Care Center

End stage renal disease (ESRD)

End stage renal disease (ESRD)


End-stage renal disease, also called end-stage kidney disease or kidney failure, occurs when chronic kidney disease — the gradual loss of kidney function — reaches an advanced state. In end-stage renal disease, your kidneys no longer work as they should to meet your body’s needs.

Your kidneys filter wastes and excess fluids from your blood, which are then excreted in your urine. When your kidneys lose their filtering abilities, dangerous levels of fluid, electrolytes and wastes can build up in your body.

With end-stage renal disease, you need dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive. But you can also choose to opt for conservative care to manage your symptoms — aiming for the best quality of life during your remaining time.

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Early in chronic kidney disease, you might have no signs or symptoms. As chronic kidney disease progresses to end-stage renal disease, signs and symptoms might include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Changes in how much you urinate
  • Chest pain, if fluid builds up around the lining of the heart
  • Shortness of breath, if fluid builds up in the lungs
  • Swelling of feet and ankles
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) that’s difficult to control
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Decreased mental sharpness
  • Muscle twitches and cramps
  • Persistent itching
  • Metallic taste

Signs and symptoms of kidney disease are often nonspecific, meaning they can also be caused by other illnesses. Because your kidneys can make up for lost function, signs and symptoms might not appear until irreversible damage has occurred.


Kidney disease occurs when a disease or condition impairs kidney function, causing kidney damage to worsen over several months or years. For some people, kidney damage can continue to progress even after the underlying condition is resolved.

Diseases and conditions that can lead to kidney disease include:

  • Type 1 or type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Kidney stones
  • Glomerulonephritis — an inflammation of the kidney’s filtering units (glomeruli)
  • Interstitial nephritis, an inflammation of the kidney’s tubules and surrounding structures
  • Polycystic kidney disease or other inherited kidney diseases
  • Prolonged obstruction of the urinary tract, from conditions such as enlarged prostate, kidney stones and some cancers
  • Vesicoureteral reflux, a condition that causes urine to back up into your kidneys
  • Recurrent kidney infection, also called pyelonephritis

Risk Factors

Certain factors increase the risk that chronic kidney disease will progress more quickly to end-stage renal disease, including:

  • Diabetes with poor blood sugar control
  • Kidney disease that affects the glomeruli, the structures in the kidneys that filter wastes from the blood
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Tobacco use
  • Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander or American Indian heritage
  • Family history of kidney failure
  • Older age
  • Frequent use of medications that could be damaging to the kidney


Kidney damage, once it occurs, can’t be reversed. Potential complications can affect almost any part of your body and can include:

  • Fluid retention, which could lead to swelling in your arms and legs, high blood pressure, or fluid in your lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • A sudden rise in potassium levels in your blood (hyperkalemia), which could impair your heart’s ability to function and may be life-threatening
  • Heart disease
  • Weak bones and an increased risk of bone fractures
  • Anemia
  • Decreased sex drive, erectile dysfunction or reduced fertility
  • Damage to your central nervous system, which can cause difficulty concentrating, personality changes or seizures
  • Decreased immune response, which makes you more vulnerable to infection
  • Pericarditis, an inflammation of the saclike membrane that envelops your heart (pericardium)
  • Pregnancy complications that carry risks for the mother and the developing fetus
  • Malnutrition
  • Irreversible damage to your kidneys (end-stage kidney disease), eventually requiring either dialysis or a kidney transplant for survival

Diagnosis and Tests

People with chronic kidney disease usually see a kidney specialist called a nephrologist. your healthcare provider takes the following tests:

  • Blood tests,to measure the amount of waste products, such as creatinine and urea, in your blood
  • Urine tests,to check the level of the protein albumin in your urine
  • Imaging tests,such as ultrasound, MRI or CT scan, to assess your kidneys and look for unusual areas
  • Removing a sample of kidney tissue (biopsy),to examine under a microscope to learn what type of kidney disease you have and how much damage there is.

Certain tests might be repeated over time to help your provider follow the progress of your kidney disease.

Stages of Kidney Disease

There are five stages of kidney disease. To determine what stage you have, your health care provider performs a blood test to check your glomerular filtration rate (GFR). The GFR measures how much blood the kidneys filter each minute, recorded as milliliters per minute (mL/min). As the GFR declines, so does your kidney function.

When your kidneys no longer work at a level that’s necessary to keep you alive, you have end-stage renal disease. End-stage renal disease usually occurs when kidney function is less than 15% of typical kidney function.

As a part of kidney disease staging, your provider also might test whether you have protein in your urine.                     

Kidney disease stage

GFR, mL/min

Kidney function

Stage 1

90 or above

Healthy kidney function

Stage 2

60 to 89

Mild loss of kidney function

Stage 3a

45 to 59

Mild to moderate loss of kidney function

Stage 3b

30 to 44

Moderate to severe loss of kidney function

Stage 4

15 to 29

Severe loss of kidney function

Stage 5

Less than 15

Kidney failure

Source: National Kidney Foundation

Treatment and Medication

End-stage renal disease treatments include:

  • Kidney transplant
  • Dialysis
  • Supportive care

Kidney transplant. A kidney transplant is a surgical procedure to place a healthy kidney from a live or deceased donor into a person whose kidneys no longer function properly. A kidney transplant is often the treatment of choice for end-stage renal disease, compared with a lifetime on dialysis.

The kidney transplant process takes time. It involves finding a donor, living or deceased, whose kidney best matches your own. You then have surgery to place the new kidney in your lower abdomen and attach the blood vessels and ureter — the tube that links the kidney to the bladder — that will allow the new kidney to function.

You may need to spend several days to a week in the hospital. After leaving the hospital, you can expect frequent checkups to monitor your progress as your recovery continues. You may take a number of medications to help keep your immune system from rejecting your new kidney and to reduce the risk of post-surgery complications, such as infection.

After a successful kidney transplant, your new kidney filters your blood, and you no longer need dialysis.

Dialysis. Dialysis does some of the work of your kidneys when your kidneys can’t do it themselves. This includes removing extra fluids and waste products from your blood, restoring electrolyte levels, and helping control your blood pressure.

Dialysis options include peritoneal dialysis and hemodialysis.

  • Peritoneal dialysis. During peritoneal dialysis, blood vessels in your abdominal lining (peritoneum) fill in for your kidneys with the help of a fluid that washes in and out of the peritoneal space. Peritoneal dialysis is done in your home.
  • Hemodialysis. During hemodialysis, a machine does some of the work of the kidneys by filtering harmful wastes, salts and fluid from your blood. Hemodialysis may be done at a center or in your home.

For dialysis to be successful, you may need to make lifestyle changes, such as following certain dietary recommendations.

Palliative care. If you choose not to have a kidney transplant or dialysis, you can choose palliative or supportive care to help you manage your symptoms and feel better. You also can combine palliative care with kidney transplant or dialysis.

Without either dialysis or a transplant, kidney failure progresses, eventually leading to death. Death can occur quickly or take months or years. Supportive care might include management of symptoms, measures to keep you comfortable and end-of-life planning.

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As part of your treatment for kidney disease, your health care provider might recommend that you follow a special diet to help support your kidneys and limit the work they must do. Ask for a referral to a registered dietitian with expertise in kidney disease to learn ways to make your diet easier on your kidneys.

Depending on your situation, kidney function and overall health, your dietitian might recommend that you:

  • Avoid products with added salt. Lower the amount of sodium you eat each day by avoiding products with added salt, including many convenience foods, such as frozen dinners, canned soups and fast foods. Other foods with added salt include salty snack foods, canned vegetables, and processed meats and cheeses.
  • Choose lower potassium foods. Your dietitian might recommend that you choose lower potassium foods at each meal. High-potassium foods include bananas, oranges, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes.
    Examples of low-potassium foods include apples, cabbage, carrots, green beans, grapes and strawberries. Be aware that many salt substitutes contain potassium, so you generally should avoid them if you have kidney failure.
  • Limit your protein. Your dietitian will estimate the grams of protein you need each day and make recommendations based on that amount. High-protein foods include lean meats, eggs, milk, cheese and beans. Low-protein foods include vegetables, fruits, breads and cereals.


Healthcare providers can’t cure kidney failure, and the disease is life-threatening. But dialysis or a kidney transplant can help you live longer and manage any symptoms or complications. You can also do the things you enjoy.