Kidney failure is when your kidneys can no longer work on their own. Waste and fluid build up in your blood and make you feel sick. You may live without medical treatment for a few days or weeks after kidney failure, but this can vary.

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If you have chronic kidney disease (CKD), your kidneys cannot filter waste and excess fluid from your blood as well as they should. But kidney disease is not the same as kidney failure.

End-stage kidney failure means important body functions are compromised. You’ll feel sick. Your life will even be at risk without medical treatment.

CKD is a progressive disease that develops in five stages, meaning that your kidney function gets worse over time.

Kidney failure is the fifth and final stage of CKD. Some healthcare professionals call it end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

It is possible to stop the progression of CKD before it reaches the fifth stage for some people. Others may not be aware they have CKD until their kidneys fail.

Although there’s currently no cure for CKD, you can take some steps to slow disease progression and prevent kidney failure.

If your kidneys fail, they’re no longer able to work on their own, but treatment is available that can help you live longer.

The effects of kidney disease on the body may vary depending on the stage of CKD. If you have CKD, your kidneys will progressively lose the ability to perform their functions.

The main job of the kidneys is to filter waste and excess fluid from the blood and balance salts and minerals like calcium, potassium, and sodium. Kidneys also produce hormones that your body needs to:

  • manage blood pressure
  • make red blood cells
  • keep bones strong

Living with CKD increases the chances of developing:

You may not have any symptoms or mild symptoms during the early stages of CKD, but you will start feeling sick as your kidneys fail.

When your kidneys fail, you may develop generalized symptoms related to kidney functions. These can vary in intensity.

Healthcare professionals consider you to be in the stage of kidney failure when your kidney function is reduced to 15% or less.

Kidney failure signs and symptoms may include:

  • dark urine
  • edema (swelling) in your ankles, legs, and feet
  • persistent or recurrent headaches
  • itchy skin
  • restless legs
  • unexplained fatigue (low energy)
  • sleep disturbances
  • digestive symptoms like nausea
  • little or no urine
  • muscle cramps
  • generalized aches and pains
  • cognitive challenges like trouble focusing or remembering information

Symptoms of end-stage kidney failure may include:

  • pain in your bones
  • vomiting
  • unintended weight loss
  • changes in skin color and texture
  • loss of appetite
  • mental confusion
  • nosebleeds
  • an inability to urinate

If you have kidney failure, you’re left with about 10–15% of your kidney function. At this point, your kidneys can no longer function on their own.

You may experience more severe and persistent symptoms, in addition to:

  • fever
  • seizures
  • coma

Without any medical treatment, life expectancy after kidney failure is only a few weeks.

While there’s no way to undo kidney failure, treatment in the form of dialysis or kidney transplant may help you live longer. In fact, once you reach end-stage kidney failure, you need medical treatment to survive.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average life expectancy for people on dialysis is 5–10 years. Some people receive dialysis for as long as 30 years.

Many factors can affect life expectancy if you have kidney failure. Lifestyle changes and medications can help improve your quality of life. For example:

Most people can survive with one healthy kidney. If both of your kidneys fail, you’ll need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Dietary changes and regular exercise may help your treatments work better. Your diet is key to maintaining the proper balance of salts, fluids, and minerals in your body.

Exercise strengthens your body and brings oxygen to your tissues. It can also improve your mood and help you sleep at night.


Dialysis does the work your kidneys no longer can, filtering your blood to remove waste products. There are two types of dialysis: hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis.


During hemodialysis, your blood goes through an external filter containing a dialysis solution that removes waste and excess water. Your blood leaves your body and then returns via needles in your arm.

You can have hemodialysis at a dialysis center or at home.

Peritoneal dialysis

With peritoneal dialysis, a surgeon inserts a catheter into your abdomen. Dialysis solution from a bag enters your abdomen through the catheter. Once the bag is empty, you disconnect it and cap the catheter. You can then carry on with everyday activities.

The dialysis solution in your abdomen absorbs waste and excess fluid from your body.

After several hours, you drain and discard the used dialysis solution through the catheter into an empty bag. You may need to repeat this process 4–6 times a day.

You can perform this type of dialysis anywhere. It can also work while you’re sleeping with the help of a machine called a cycler.

Kidney transplant

A kidney transplant is a surgical procedure in which one or both of your kidneys are replaced with a donor kidney. A transplant can be from a living or deceased donor. Your doctor can guide you through the process of finding a living donor or getting on a waitlist.

A successful kidney transplant may help you to live longer than if you remained on dialysis. In many cases, donor recipients can live the way they did before they had kidney disease.

As with any surgery, risks with transplant surgery are possible. You’ll also need to take anti-rejection medication to protect your new kidney from your immune system.

This type of medication increases your risk of infection and some types of cancer.

When your kidneys stop working, you’ll need medical treatment to survive. Life expectancy is often reduced to a few weeks if your kidneys fail. However, treatment is available and usually effective to help you feel better and live longer.

Signs your kidneys are failing may include swelling, itchiness, aches and pains, weight loss, an inability to urinate, and confusion. Coma is possible in the end stages of kidney failure.

Dialysis and kidney transplants are both options for kidney failure. Many people who have a kidney transplant feel as they did before they developed kidney disease. Some people receiving dialysis treatment live up to 30 years.