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Urology

The Silent Signs of Kidney Disease

Kidney damage often goes unnoticed until it's too late. Recognizing the symptoms early can help prevent further damage and long-term health consequences.


Patient talking with doctorYou lose a little bit of everything as you get older. Life experiences make you much wiser but many aspects of your health peak before you even reach middle age.

Your kidneys peak at 30. After that, they begin a long, gradual decline, losing a little functionality over time. In most cases, you don’t even notice it — even when the decline is quicker and more problematic. By that time, the damage is done and your kidney condition is chronic.

What is chronic kidney disease?

It’s when your kidneys suffer permanent damage and loss of functionality over time. According to the National Kidney Foundation, 15 percent of adults in the U.S. have chronic kidney disease (CKD), making it more common than both prostate cancer and breast cancer.

But just because your kidneys don’t work like they used to, doesn’t mean you have CKD. Anyone can get it at any age but you’re at greater risk if you’re older than 60, have a family member with kidney disease or have diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease.

These risk factors speed up the normal, gradual decline of the kidneys. If you have any of them, you should be aware of the signs of kidney disease.

What are the symptoms of kidney disease?

Because of its slow-developing nature, 90 percent of people who have CKD don’t even know it. Most people show no signs of disease until it’s too late and the kidneys are badly damaged.

You can’t reverse kidney damage. You can only keep it from progressing. So if you see these signs, you can catch CKD early and start treatment to prevent your kidneys from getting worse.

1. Your pee changes.

Your kidneys are like garbage collectors for your blood. They get rid of all the waste and extra fluids. They remove it from the blood and turn it into urine to be expelled from your body. So you can see signs of kidney issues in your urine or bathroom habits. You might:

  • Produce too much or too little urine.
  • Wake up in the night to pee.
  • Notice your pee is too foamy or bubbly.
  • Have red, purple or brown pee due to blood in your urine.
  • Feel pressure or have trouble urinating.

2. You have less energy. 

The kidneys have another important job — telling the body to when to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout your body. Damaged kidneys stop producing the hormone that signals your body to make red blood cells, leading to less oxygen in the rest of your cells.

When the cells are tired, your body is tired. You feel fatigued, get exhausted easily or have trouble catching your breath. You may sleep even more without ever feeling rested. Since your brain is also not getting enough oxygen, you can get dizzy, faint and have trouble concentrating.

3. Your feet and ankles swell up.

Without proper disposal, the extra fluid and salt in your body can deposit in your lower limbs, causing swelling in your feet and ankles. You may also experience swelling elsewhere, in your face, legs, arms or hands. Swelling is more common in the late stages of kidney disease.

4. You don't feel like eating.

The build-up of waste affects your other organs. It causes inflammation in your stomach. This makes you nauseous so you don’t want to eat anything at all. And when you do, you may end up vomiting.

Even your favorite foods can be less appealing. The waste affects your sense of taste and smell. It also causes bad breath, leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth overall. Many people stop enjoying the taste of meat and struggle with maintaining their weight.

5. You're itchy all over. 

Poorly functioning kidneys throw off the balance of your blood. In addition too much waste, there can be too much of other minerals or too little of other essential nutrients. Since blood reaches every part of your body, so do the excess minerals like phosphorus that cause a rash and make your skin itch.

The itchiness can affect your whole body or be localized to one annoying spot, most commonly the back, abs, head and arms. And it tends to get worse at night, which can cause sleep issues.

Do you even need your kidneys?

Technically, no. You can survive without your kidneys, which is why it’s the most commonly donated organ. You can go on living a normal, healthy life with just one kidney. The remaining kidney will pick up the slack and continue filtering out the waste in your body.

On the flip side, kidneys are commonly donated because they are so necessary to your body functions. When you have kidney failure — the last and most severe stage of chronic kidney disease — your kidneys have completely stopped working. And you have to continue their critical work somehow, either through a kidney transplant or dialysis.

Kidney failure is almost always permanent. Without a new kidney through transplant surgery, you have to regularly undergo dialysis, where a machine does the important work of removing waste, balancing the chemicals in your blood and helping to control your blood pressure.

Is there anything you can do to stop the decline of your kidneys?

Some decline is to be expected. To prevent chronic kidney disease or kidney failure, you need to control for the other health factors that cause further damage — high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Taking these steps not only save your kidneys, but also improve your overall health:

  1. Exercise often. Physical activity helps you manage your blood pressure and blood glucose. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight because carrying too much weight can overwork the kidneys. Exercising for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week will make you and your kidneys healthier.
  2. Quit smoking. Cigarettes damage your heart and kidneys as well as your lungs. If stop smoking, you can stop kidney damage from getting worse.
  3. Stick to a kidney-friendly, renal diet. By limiting the sodium, phosphorus and potassium in your diet, you help keep the kidneys from having to filter three minerals that cause health issues. You need to eat a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, pasta, white bread and rice, beans and lean meat. You may also have to limit your fluids or adjust your diet to balance out other nutrients in your body.
  4. Manage your medication. Everything that gets into your bloodstream eventually gets filtered by your kidneys. Many prescription and over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen can damage your kidneys if used long-term.

Your kidneys work silently, filtering out the bad to leave you feeling good. Making the move to a healthier lifestyle now can make you feel even better and preserve your kidney function longer.

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