What is chronic kidney disease (CKD)?

Definitions and Symptoms of Chronic Kidney Disease

Chronic kidney disease (CKD), also called “chronic kidney failure,” happens when kidneys can no longer fully clean toxins from the blood, causing a buildup of waste in your body. This can happen suddenly or over time.

Healthy kidneys remove toxins from the blood, help control blood pressure, keep body chemicals in balance, keep bones strong (prevent metabolic acidosis), tell your body to make red blood cells, keep potassium levels in check, and help children grow normally. Learn more about how healthy kidneys work here.

What causes chronic kidney disease?

There are two common diseases that can lead to CKD: diabetes and high blood pressure.


Diabetes is a disease where the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to break down the sugar from food. The excess sugar (also known as “glucose”) remains in the bloodstream. High levels of glucose can damage the tiny blood vessels in your kidneys. This can lead to a condition called “diabetic nephropathy.”

High Blood Pressure

Another leading cause of CKD is hypertension, or high blood pressure. When blood pressure is high and untreated, it can damage the blood vessels that carry blood throughout the body. Kidneys have small blood vessels that can become damaged by high blood pressure, which can lead to CKD. 

What are the symptoms of chronic kidney disease?

Knowing the symptoms of chronic kidney disease can help you detect it early enough to get treatment. Symptoms can include:

  • Changes in urination — making more or less urine than usual, feeling pressure when urinating, changes in the color of urine, foamy or bubbly urine, or having to get up at night to urinate.
  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, hands or face — caused by a buildup of fluid in the body.
  • Fatigue or weakness — a buildup of wastes or a shortage of red blood cells (anemia) can cause these problems when the kidneys begin to fail.
  • Shortness of breath — kidney failure is sometimes confused with asthma or heart failure, because fluid can build up in the lungs.
  • Ammonia breath or an ammonia or metal taste in the mouth — waste buildup in the body can cause bad breath, changes in taste or an aversion to protein foods like meat.
  • Back or flank pain — the kidneys are located on either side of the spine in the back.
  • Itchy skin — waste buildup in the body can cause severe itching, especially of the legs.
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • More hypoglycemic episodes, if diabetic

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you have a family history of chronic kidney disease, frequent kidney stones, or if you have diabetes or high blood pressure. Write down your symptoms and bring that information with you to your next doctor’s appointment. Whether you discover that your kidneys are healthy or you learn you have kidney problems, knowing about it sooner may ease your mind and allow you to take steps to slow the progress of kidney disease and possibly delay or prevent dialysis or a kidney transplant.

How is chronic kidney disease diagnosed?

To determine if the symptoms you have are because of kidney failure, your doctor will perform specific blood and urine tests to measure kidney function:

Urinalysis – An examination of a sample of your urine to check for protein, blood and white blood cells in the urine. High blood levels of creatinine and urea nitrogen (BUN) or high levels of protein in your urine suggest chronic kidney disease. People with diabetes should have a yearly urine test for microalbumin (small amounts of protein that don't show up on standard urine protein test).

Blood tests – Particularly a test for creatinine and blood urea nitrogen (BUN), waste products that healthy kidneys remove from the bloodstream.

After you have basic screening tests done, if you have signs of kidney disease or an elevated albumin level, you should ask for a referral to a nephrologist (a doctor who specializes in treating kidney disease).

How is chronic kidney disease treated?

If caught in the early stages, medicines and lifestyle changes may help slow the progression of chronic kidney disease.

People with end stage kidney disease (ESKD) have two treatment options: dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Learn more about the different stages of chronic kidney disease and the treatment options for each stage.

What are the complications of chronic kidney disease?

Many people with CKD have one or more comorbidities, a disease or condition that exists alongside another disease. Some of the most common comorbidities among people with CKD are diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (or heart disease) and congestive heart failure. Learn more about living with comorbidities and CKD here.

How can I prevent chronic kidney disease?

Awareness and education are key to preventing chronic kidney disease. The more you know about CKD and its common causes and symptoms, the more empowered you can be to take control of your health now.

Ask your health care provider to monitor your glucose levels and blood pressure. An early diagnosis of diabetes or high blood pressure can lead to appropriate treatment before any kidney damage happens. If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's instructions for medication, diet and exercise. Keeping your blood sugar level and blood pressure low is important to prevent more damage not only to your kidneys, but your entire body.


Ready to learn more?

Sign up for a no-cost Kidney Smart® class to learn about CKD prevention, kidney-friendly eating, treatment options and more. Classes are online, over the phone and in person (where available). Find a Kidney Smart class near you and start taking control of your kidney health today.