• Kidney Disease Basics

  • Kidney Disease Basics

Get the facts on kidney disease

Being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD) can be overwhelming. Understanding your kidney disease, or renal disease, is the first step in taking control of your health. Read on for a broad overview of CKD, from basic terminology and risk factors to how to slow its progression.

What is kidney disease?

When you have kidney disease, your kidneys are no longer able to remove waste effectively from your body or balance your fluids. This buildup of wastes can change the chemistry of your body, causing some symptoms you can feel—and others you don’t.

With kidney diseases, the first symptoms you may have are ones that you won’t feel but that will show up in tests that your doctor orders. It’s important to find a kidney doctor (also called a nephrologist). Partner closely with your nephrologist and health care team as early as possible.

Symptoms of kidney disease

A CKD diagnosis may come as a surprise to many people, because the symptoms are often times subtle. The signs of kidney disease are:

  • Change in urination
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rash
  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling cold
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • High blood pressure

In many cases, kidney damage is the result of another illness that has progressed slowly over the years. The two main causes are diabetes and high blood pressure. If your kidney disease is the result of one of these conditions, the best way to manage it is to treat the illness that is causing it.

Share the video below to educate others about some of the symptoms of chronic kidney disease.

Okay… but what do healthy kidneys do?

Your kidneys (two bean-shaped organs located in your lower back) are your body’s filtration system, cleaning wastes and extra fluids from your body, and producing and balancing chemicals that are necessary for your body to function. Healthy kidneys also:

  • Clean and filter your blood
  • Produce urine
  • Produce hormones
  • Control blood pressure
  • Keep bones strong

Following a kidney-friendly diet, managing health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension and not smoking may help your kidneys function better and longer, even when you have kidney disease.

The five stages of chronic kidney disease

There are five stages of chronic kidney disease. Stage 1 is the closest to healthy kidney function and Stage 5 requires dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Understanding your stage can help you learn how to take control and slow the progression of kidney disease. The stages of renal disease are not based on symptoms alone. Instead, they reflect how effectively the kidneys eliminate waste from the blood by using an equation that estimates kidney function, known as glomerular filtration rate (GFR). Determining your GFR requires a simple blood test from your doctor. Before that, you can use the GFR calculator to estimate your GFR.

Use the links below to learn about each stage of kidney disease:

Stage 1 with normal or high GFR (GFR > 90 mL/min)
Stage 2 Mild CKD (GFR = 60-89 mL/min)
Stage 3A Moderate CKD (GFR = 45-59 mL/min)
Stage 3B Moderate CKD (GFR = 30-44 mL/min)
Stage 4 Severe CKD (GFR = 15-29 mL/min)
Stage 5 End Stage CKD (GFR <15>

How did I get kidney disease?

Diabetes and high blood pressure are the top causes of kidney diseases. Another form of CKD is glomerulonephritis, a general term for many types of kidney inflammation. Genetic diseases such as polycystic kidney disease (PKD); autoimmune diseases; birth defects; acute kidney failure; and other problems can also cause kidney disease.

Watch this short video to learn more about what causes kidney disease.

How do you get kidney disease? Find out in this short video and see if you might be at risk.

Could you be at risk? Find out by taking a 3-minute Kidney Disease Risk Quiz.

When You’re New to Kidney Disease

Talking to your doctor

It’s common for patients to feel overwhelmed in a doctor’s office, because there is a lot of information to take in at once. The best way to gain control is to become your own advocate. It’s OK to ask as many questions as you like and to ask for the information to be repeated. If being assertive is difficult, ask a friend or family member to come with you. Keep notes so you can remember any additional questions or concerns that occur between visits. It’s good to become proactive when you’re new to kidney disease. Here are some questions to ask your doctor:

  • What caused my kidney disease?
  • What percentage of kidney function do I have now?
  • What are my lab test results, including my GFR?
  • What treatment is available for my symptoms?
  • What are the next steps?
  • What can I do to keep my kidneys from becoming more damaged?
  • Will I eventually need dialysis or a transplant? If so, what is the timeline?

Exploring treatment options

The goal of treatment for kidney disease is to slow the progression of the disease. Each person is different and requires individual treatment. The number of doctor visits, dietary modifications and type of treatments will depend on your stage of CKD, additional health issues, weight, blood pressure and lab results.

If you have early stage kidney disease, it may not be necessary to have regular visits with a nephrologist, but it’s recommended to meet with one at least once to help your primary care physician design an effective treatment plan, including:

  • Slowing the rate of kidney damage
  • Determining if a kidney biopsy is needed
  • Diagnosing the type of kidney disease and whether it’s reversible with treatment
  • Managing complications of kidney disease, such as anemia, high blood pressure, heart disease, metabolic acidosis and changes in mineral balance

Slowing your kidney disease progression

Now that you’ve learned about kidney disease, you can slow its progression by making healthy choices. Here are some tips to improve your health:

  • Maintain healthy blood pressure
  • Lose excess weight (or gain weight if advised by a doctor)
  • Adopt a kidney-friendly diet as prescribed by a renal dietitian
  • Follow an exercise program recommended by your physician
  • Take your prescribed medications each day
  • Keep regular doctor appointments
  • Do not smoke
  • Reduce or avoid alcohol consumption
  • Manage blood glucose if you have diabetes

Following a kidney diet

Changing your eating habits can be an effective way to slow the progression of kidney disease in some cases. Even when you have early stage CKD, you may find it helpful to start working with a renal dietitian. Your doctor, nurse or local hospital’s nutrition department may be able to recommend one; or visit the American Dietetic Association website.

Adopting healthy eating practices when you are new to kidney disease is one of the best ways to support your health. The recommendation for an early stage CKD diet is to eat high-quality proteins (such as chicken, fish, eggs and Greek yogurt); carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and grains); and fats that provide a healthy amount of calories. Your dietitian may ask you to decrease the amount of protein you eat, especially if you normally eat a high-protein diet. When protein is digested, waste products are created. And the less your kidneys have to work to remove waste from your body, the better.

If you have comorbidities such as diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, your dietitian will take that into consideration and guide you to limit or avoid foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.

Although the kidney diet isn’t a cure, it can help slow the development of your kidney disease.

Finding emotional support

Being diagnosed with kidney disease can bring up many emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, depression and helplessness. These are all natural responses. Managing health isn’t just about the physical aspects; it’s also about emotional well-being.

You may be able to find support from close friends and family. You can also look online for support groups when you’re new to chronic kidney disease. For helpful tips, sign up for a free myDaVita account.

Keep learning with no-cost kidney education

Looking for more information about CKD, kidney diet tips, treatment options and insurance coverage for dialysis? Kidney patients and their care partners can take an in-person or online Kidney Smart® education class at no cost.


What Stage Are You In?

Knowing your glomerular filtration rate (GFR) can determine your stage of kidney disease, helping you better manage it.

Learn to manage your kidney health.

Get your questions answered in a no-cost Kidney Smart® class.