Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(12):2539

What is kidney failure?

The kidneys are a pair of organs located just behind the stomach. They filter bacteria and extra salt and water from the body. The kidneys stop working when illness or injury keeps them from filtering properly. In kidney failure, these bacteria and salts build up and can have bad effects on the heart, brain, lungs, and other organs. This may even cause serious illness or death.

How do you get kidney failure?

Kidney failure can happen quickly (days) or more slowly (months or years). Many illnesses can cause kidneys to fail, including diabetes and high blood pressure. Most people with chronic kidney failure need to take medicines, and many need dialysis.

Some people with kidney failure are very sick and need to be in the hospital. About 10 percent of the time, it is because of a severe allergic reaction to medicines. This is called interstitial nephritis (say: in-ter-STI-shul nef-RYE-tus).

How can my doctor tell if I have kidney failure?

Your doctor will check your symptoms and medical history. Blood and urine tests are also helpful. If these tests aren't definite, your doctor may need to do an ultrasound or take a biopsy of the kidney. A biopsy is where a tiny piece of the kidney is removed and examined under a microscope.

Will my kidney failure get better?

Most people with interstitial nephritis get better. Their kidneys start working normally after a few weeks. Some people may need a year to get better. Your previous health, the severity of your illness, and the results of a kidney biopsy (if you have one) will help your doctor predict how long it will take for you to get better.

How is interstitial nephritis treated?

Your doctor will take a number of steps to treat you. This may include:

  • Stopping the medicines that cause the illness or that might hurt your kidneys.

  • Treating infections and other problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

  • Other treatments such as steroids.

  • Kidney dialysis, where a machine takes up the work of the kidneys.

How can I keep from getting kidney failure?

You can do some things to keep from getting kidney failure or interstitial nephritis:

  • DO NOT use any prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, herbal or nutrition supplements without talking to your doctor.

  • Take your medicines for diabetes and high blood pressure regularly, and follow your doctor's instructions.

  • Let your doctor know about any reactions or allergies to medicines.

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