Recognizing the Early Signs of Kidney Disease

Approximately 15% of U.S. adults are estimated to have kidney disease — and most don’t even know it. In fact, studies show that 9 in 10 adults with kidney disease are unaware that they have the condition. This is an alarming statistic. 

As is the case with any disease, being diagnosed and treated as early as possible is crucial. We’re here to bring awareness to kidney disease and its subtle symptoms that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Keep reading to learn more about the disease and its risk factors, as well as seven early signs of kidney disease you should look out for. 

Overview of Kidney Disease

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs that are located below the rib cage on each side of your spine. They are responsible for filtering excess waste, fluids, and other impurities out of your blood through urine.

To put things into perspective, healthy kidneys filter approximately half a cup of blood every minute — but when you have kidney disease, they lose their ability to do this. As a result, dangerous levels of waste and fluid can accumulate inside your body.

In addition to removing toxins, your kidneys also serve a variety of other functions. They maintain a balance of water and minerals in your blood, create a chemical that prompts your body to produce red blood cells, and make a form of vitamin D that is needed for bone health. All of these functions are also negatively affected by kidney disease, which we will discuss later on.

Risk Factors of Kidney Disease

There are several conditions and lifestyle factors that may increase your risk of developing kidney disease. These include:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Family history of kidney disease

If you have any of these conditions, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your risk factors and get tested for kidney disease.

Warning Signs of Kidney Disease

During the early stages of kidney disease, you may show no signs or symptoms at all. As your kidney damage progresses, symptoms may develop and worsen over time. Keep a lookout for these potential signs of kidney disease, so it doesn’t go unnoticed and you can get it treated as soon as possible.

1. Changes in Urine

Producing urine is one of the main functions of your kidneys, so it’s no surprise that you should pay close attention to your urine when monitoring for early signs of kidney disease. If your kidneys aren’t functioning properly, a variety of urination problems are likely to occur. Some of the tell-tale symptoms to look out for include blood in your urine, an increased need to urinate, and the appearance of cloudy or foamy urine.

2. Fatigue

Healthy kidneys produce a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), which is what signals your body to produce red blood cells. As your kidneys begin to fail, they produce less EPO — and your body produces fewer red blood cells. Not having enough red blood cells can cause anemia, which occurs when your brain lacks oxygen. When this happens, you may feel tired, dizzy, or weak. You may also notice that you feel more mentally exhausted than normal, or that you’re having trouble with your memory and concentration.

3. Swollen Face or Feet

You are probably familiar with the age-old advice to drink a glass of water in the morning to reduce facial swelling. With kidney disease, facial swelling is unavoidable no matter how much water you drink. When your kidneys are unable to flush out extra toxins, a buildup occurs that leads to puffiness or swelling in your face. Sodium retention is another side effect of kidney disease, which can cause swelling in your ankles or feet as well.

4. Localized Pain

Your kidneys are located in the back of your abdomen on each side of your spine. If you are experiencing localized pain in your sides or middle to upper back, this could be a sign that something is wrong with your kidneys. In addition to back or side pain, another subtle symptom to look out for is muscle cramping. Kidney disease can cause various electrolyte imbalances, such as low calcium or high phosphorus levels. As a result, you may experience muscle pain or a pins-and-needles sensation in your arms and legs.

5. Metallic Taste in Food

If you have kidney disease, it is very common to experience changes in your taste. Waste building up in the blood can make food taste like metal and leave a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. Unfortunately, this can make even your most favorite foods difficult to eat. In addition to making your food taste different, the waste buildup can also cause bad breath.

6. Dry and Itchy Skin

Your kidneys are responsible for keeping your bones strong and maintaining the right amount of minerals in your body. When your kidneys aren’t able to maintain a healthy balance of minerals and nutrients in your blood, dry skin and itchy patches can occur. Typically, rashes resulting from kidney failure feel “deeper” than a normal rash and will be unresponsive to topical medication.

7. Nausea and Vomiting

When your body is failing to flush out toxins, it is normal for a severe buildup of waste and fluids to occur. Your body needs to get rid of these toxins one way or another, which can result in long periods of nausea and vomiting. This nausea and vomiting can also cause you to lose your appetite, as well as to lose weight.

When to See a Professional

It is much easier to successfully treat kidney disease when it is detected early. To slow down the progression of kidney damage, your urologist will first determine what the underlying cause is. If kidney disease progresses, it can lead to kidney failure, which may require dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive.

Although all of the symptoms we mentioned above are potential warning signs of kidney disease, the only way to know for sure is to seek a professional’s opinion and get tested. The sooner you recognize symptoms and notify a professional, the sooner you can get diagnosed and start slowing down the progression of your kidney disease.

If you recognize any of these early signs of kidney disease, or if you have a medical condition that increases your risk, you should schedule an appointment with us at your earliest convenience.

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This content was originally published in March 2018 and was refreshed in March 2021.