IgA Nephropathy (Berger’s Disease)

In 1968, French nephrologist Dr. Jean Berger first described immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy. Sometimes referred to as Berger’s disease, IgA nephropathy is a kidney disease that causes the kidneys to become inflamed. At first the disease was believed to be of little threat. But after more and more researchers looked into IgA nephropathy, it turned out that as many as 50 percent of the cases progressed to end stage renal disease (ESRD), or kidney failure, according to the IgA Nephropathy Support Network. After diabetes and high blood pressure, IgA nephropathy is the third leading cause of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in the United States.

Immunoglobulin A is an antibody. Antibodies are produced when there is a virus, bacterium or toxin, threatening your body. Normally, these antibodies will help fight the thing that is invading your body. For reasons that are unknown, IgA can get into the kidney, causing inflammation. IgA can eventually lead to blood and protein in the urine, high blood pressure, swollen hands and feet and other signs of CKD.

Symptoms of IgA nephropathy

Symptoms for IgA nephropathy don’t occur at the beginning stages of the disease. Instead, it’s a progressive condition that can take decades to produce symptoms. Sometimes, during a routine screening your doctor may detect signs of IgA nephropathy, which include: 

  • Cola or tea-colored urine, due to blood in the urine (hematuria)
  • Periodic pain in the loins, abdomen, sides or flanks
  • Foam after urination caused by protein in the urine (known as proteinuria)
  • Fatigue
  • Flu and cold-like symptoms
  • High blood pressure
  • Swelling of the hands and feet (edema)
  • Mood swings
  • Becoming more susceptible to allergies
  • Lack of response to cold temperatures (mainly in children)
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs, mainly in young girls)

If you find blood in the urine, talk to your doctor immediately, because this could be a symptom for IgA nephropathy.

Causes of IgA nephropathy?

Anyone at any age can get IgA nephropathy although it’s more common in men. Caucasians and Asians also have a higher incidence of IgA nephropathy than other ethnic groups.

It’s still unknown how people develop IgA nephropathy and why IgA traps itself in the kidneys. In some cases, it can develop after a child or young adult has a viral infection of the upper respiratory or gastrointestinal tracts. For some people, a genetic defect may be linked to the development of IgA nephropathy.

IgA nephropathy and your kidneys

Acute kidney failure or CKD can occur due to IgA nephropathy. In some cases, a person’s kidneys will stop functioning suddenly and then after a time will begin functioning again. For those who have IgA nephropathy that leads to CKD, after time — years or even decades — their kidneys will slowly stop functioning and a treatment such as dialysis or a kidney transplant will be necessary.

Diagnosing IgA nephropathy

Blood in the urine is the most common symptom for IgA nephropathy. If blood or protein is found in your urine a series of tests may be ordered by your doctor. These tests can usually determine if the kidneys are injured and how well they are working. A kidney biopsy may be in order if your doctor believes it’s a severe case.

Treating IgA nephropathy

IgA nephropathy cannot be prevented and has no cure. Some people are able to live with the disease without many complications. But half of the people who do get IgA nephropathy may progress to ESRD. Your doctor will work with you to help treat this condition and may recommend:

  • High blood pressure medications (such as ACE inhibitors prescribed by your doctor)
  • Immunosuppressants (such as corticosteroids and methylprednisolone)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (reduces inflammation in kidney)
  • Vitamin E (may be prescribed by your doctor; reduces protein in the urine)
  • Kidney diet (as planned by your dietitian)

Talk with your doctor about getting tested for IgA nephropathy and things you should and should not do if you’re diagnosed with the disease.

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