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Kidney Problems - Frequently Asked Questions

Overview | Causes | Diagnosis | Treatment | FAQ

What can cause a kidney infection?

Kidney infection typically occurs when bacteria enter your urinary tract through the urethra and begin to multiply. Bacteria from an infection elsewhere in your body also can spread through your bloodstream to your kidneys.

How do I prevent a kidney infection?

To prevent kidney infections, drink plenty of liquids, including cranberry juice. Cranberry juice has chemicals that fight off all urinary tract infections. Wearing cotton underwear and loose clothing that does not trap heat and moisture is also a good prevention method of kidney infections. Practice good bathroom hygiene by cleaning thoroughly after using the toilet. Women should wipe from front to back to avoid spreading fecal bacteria to the opening of the urethra. Recurring infections may mean that there is an important problem with the kidneys and such cases should be evaluated by a urologist.

What are common causes of kidney stones?

The crystals that lead to kidney stones are likely to form when your urine contains a high concentration of certain substances — especially calcium, oxalate, uric acid and rarely, cystine — or low levels of substances that help prevent crystal formation, such as citrate and magnesium. Crystals also may form if your urine becomes too concentrated or is too acidic or too alkaline.

A number of factors can cause changes in your urine, including the effects of heredity, diet, drugs, climate, lifestyle factors and certain medical conditions.

What lifestyle changes can I make to help prevent kidney stone development?

For people with a history of kidney stones, doctors usually recommend passing at least 2.5 quarts of urine a day. To do this, you'll need to drink about 14 cups of fluids every day — and even more if you live in a hot, dry climate. Although most liquids count, water is best.

In addition, if you tend to form calcium stones — a combination of calcium and oxalate — your doctor may recommend restricting foods rich in oxalates. Some examples of these foods include beets, okra, refried beans, spinach, sweet potatoes, sesame seeds, almonds and soy products. What's more, studies show that an overall diet low in salt and very low in animal protein can greatly reduce your chance of developing kidney stones.

What are symptons of acute kidney failure?

  • Decreased urine output (occasionally urine output remains normal)

  • Fluid retention, causing swelling in your legs, ankles or feet

  • Drowsiness and/or fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Confusion

  • Seizures or coma in severe cases

  • Chest pain related to pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac-like membrane that envelops your heart

What lifestyle changes can I make to help prevent kidney failure?

In many cases it is not possible to prevent kidney failure. But you may reduce your risk by following these suggestions:

  • Don't abuse alcohol or drugs, including over-the-counter pain medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Avoid long-term exposure to heavy metals, such as lead, as well as to solvents, fuels and other toxic substances.

  • Carefully follow all of your doctor's recommendations for managing your condition if you have a chronic medical condition that increases your risk of kidney failure.

If you're at high risk of kidney damage induced by contrast dye used for certain X-rays — for example, if you have diabetes or multiple myeloma — your doctor may prescribe you a dose of acetylcysteine (Mucomyst) before the procedure. This medicine can help prevent acute kidney failure under these circumstances.

What are some common risk factors for developing kidney cancer?

  • Age. Most kidney cancers occur in people 60 and older.

  • Gender. Men are more than twice as likely as are women to develop renal cell carcinoma.

  • Race. Black men have a slightly higher risk than white men do.

  • Smoking. Smokers, especially those who smoke pipes or cigars, are at greater risk than nonsmokers. The risk increases the longer you smoke and can decrease after you quit, although may take years to reach the same risk level as someone who has never smoked.

  • Obesity. May account for as many as one-third of renal cell carcinomas.

  • High blood pressure (hypertension). Having high blood pressure increases the likelihood of kidney cancer and the risk increases further if you're also overweight. Diuretic medications used to treat hypertension actually may contribute to kidney cancer as well.