8 symptoms of kidney failure, how to treat it, and how to cover the costs

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Learn how to spot kidney failure, how it’s treated, and how critical illness insurance can help you pay for your care.

Key highlights

  • Anyone can develop kidney disease that leads to kidney failure
  • The symptoms of kidney disease can mimic the symptoms of other medical conditions
  • A kidney transplant can be very expensive but critical illness insurance can help you cover out-of-pocket costs

Your kidneys are essential for good health. The kidneys are organs that filter toxins and get rid of excess waste by breaking it down to be excreted. When your kidneys aren’t functioning the way they should the toxins and waste in your body build up to dangerous levels and start to cause organ shutdown. Acute kidney failure can be fatal because without your kidneys your body is essentially poisoned by toxic waste. 

Kidney disease is much more common than people think. According to the CDC there could be more than 37 million people in the U.S. who have chronic kidney disease, but up to 90% of them won’t know it until they enter kidney failure.¹ The symptoms of kidney disease can mimic the symptoms of other medical conditions making it very difficult for someone to realize that they have it. Emerging data form the COVID-19 crisis indicates that in hot spot areas as many as 40% of patients with COVID-19 experience kidney failure.²

Kidney failure caught in the early stages can often be reversed, but it can be difficult to spot the signs of kidney failure stages before you are in full-blown kidney disease. The early stages of kidney disease are very hard to detect. Even stage 3 kidney failure can mimic the symptoms of other illnesses so effectively you won’t know that your kidneys are the problem. Stage 4 kidney failure is the most serious stage, that’s the stage where you are in full blown failure and need emergency medical help. 

The cost of a kidney transplant can total $400,000 plus monthly costs of $2,500 for medication to help prevent your body from rejecting your new kidney.³

How critical illness insurance can help you pay for kidney treatment costs

Critical illness insurance is a type of supplemental health insurance that can help you cover expenses that your primary health insurance plan doesn’t cover. If you have kidney failure requiring either dialysis or a transplant, critical illness insurance pays a lump sum cash benefit directly to you after your diagnosis is verified. You can use the cash benefit to pay any bills you choose, from deductibles to groceries. 

Guardian Critical Illness Achiever pays a lump sum cash benefit of $20,000 for your first occurrence of kidney failure requiring dialysis or transplant and $10,000 for a recurrence. Guardian Critical Illness Core pays a lump sum cash benefit of $10,000 for your first occurrence of kidney failure requiring dialysis or transplant and $5,000 for a recurrence.

Who is at risk for kidney disease?

Anyone can develop kidney disease that leads to kidney failure. And anyone can end up in kidney failure after a trauma like a car accident or injury that damages the kidneys. But there are some people who have a higher risk of developing kidney disease that leads to kidney failure including people who:

  • Are obese

  • Are diabetic

  • Have a family history of kidney trouble or kidney disease

  • Are over age 60 

  • Have high blood pressure

  • Have hypertension

  • Are female

Eating a healthy diet, limiting your intake of salt, and maintaining a healthy weight can help lower your risk of developing kidney problems as you get older. If you are obese losing weight is strongly recommended by doctors to prevent future kidney problems. Taking medication for a condition like hypertension can lower the risk of damaging your kidneys but you should have regular urine tests done to keep an eye on your kidney function levels. 

Symptoms of kidney failure

It can be difficult to catch kidney disease in its early stages. Many people have no symptoms at all before they go into kidney failure. By themselves most of these symptoms could also be symptoms of other medical conditions. However, if you notice that you have two or more of these symptoms or if you have a symptom that is getting progressively worse you should see a doctor right away.

1. Itching 

Itching by itself can be caused by many different things and doesn’t necessarily indicate kidney failure or kidney disease. Dry skin, allergies, being inside a building with high heat or air conditioning, washing your hands frequently, using harsh soap, or a dozen other factors could cause dry skin that aren’t associated with kidney failure. But if you see fine white flakes that look like powder on your skin then it’s probably untreated kidney disease or kidney failure causing the itching. Those white flakes are uremic frost, small deposits of crystalized urea that weren’t processed the right way by the kidneys. 

2. Muscle cramps

Muscle cramps are normal if you are working out or have just worked out. But when they start up out of the blue that’s not normal. When your kidneys aren’t working or they start to shut down metabolic waste that the kidneys usually filter out will start to build up. As the metabolic waste builds up it will affect your muscles and start to cause them to seize up, cramp, or twitch. If you find that your muscles are suddenly unsteady or seem weak or they keep cramping you should contact a doctor. 

3. Nausea and vomiting

When your kidneys aren’t working properly all the fluid and toxins that they normally break down and filter out will be left circulating throughout your body. This can make you nauseous and cause vomiting because those toxins and noxious fluids are building up and backing up into your stomach and making you nauseous or making you vomit. 

4. Loss of appetite

It’s normal to not feel hungry when the weather is too warm, or when you have had a big meal already earlier in the day, or for lots of other reasons. But if more than a day goes by and you’re not feeling hungry then it’s time to be concerned. But if your kidneys aren’t functioning your body will stop giving you signals to eat food because the body isn’t filtering out waste like it should be. 

5. Swelling in your feet or ankles 

Minor swelling in your feet or ankles, usually referred to as edema, is not a big deal. It happens to almost everyone at some point especially if you work on your feet or have circulation problems. But if you have severe and sudden swelling in your feet or ankles that’s cause for concern. That type of swelling in the extremities can be another sign that your body isn’t processing liquids and filtering them the way that it should be. 

6. Changes in urine output

If you suddenly stop producing urine or you are suddenly making a lot more urine than normal that’s a sign you should contact your doctor. Extreme changes in urine output or in the number of times that you need to urinate can indicate a problem with your kidneys that needs to be checked by a doctor. 

7. Trouble breathing or chest pain 

Anytime that you have trouble breathing you need to seek immediate help. If your kidneys are not working your lungs could be filling up with fluid that isn’t being processed by the kidneys. You may also experience chest pain because the area around your heart is filling up with fluid at well. 

8. Trouble sleeping

Sleep disorders like Restless Leg Syndrome, insomnia, and daytime sleepiness are common in general, but they are especially common among people with advanced kidney disease or kidney failure. 

Any of those signs of kidney failure could indicate a problem with your kidneys. But if you notice any of these symptoms occurring swiftly you should contact your doctor because you could be in acute kidney failure, which can be life threatening. Acute kidney failure means that your kidneys have stopped working and you need to get help right away to make sure that your body has help getting rid of the toxins that can poison it. The symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Severe abdominal (belly) pain 

  • Sharp lower back pain.

  • Diarrhea that is severe or doesn’t stop after 24 hours

  • Fever

  • Severe or frequent nosebleeds 

  • Rash or extremely itchy skin, especially if you notice white patches on the skin

  • Vomiting that is severe or won’t stop

If you have a history of kidney problems or kidney disease, or if you have not had kidney problems in the past but there is a history of kidney disease in your family tell that to the doctor at the hospital. You may be in kidney failure due to un-diagnosed kidney disease. 

Kidney failure treatment and recovery

Even though kidney failure can be fatal, in most cases getting treatment as soon as you notice severe symptoms can be effective. Treating kidney failure consists of two stages: treating the immediate buildup of toxins, fluids, and waste and then figuring out the cause of the kidney failure to treat that. Often people need to stay in the hospital for a week or longer to get treatment for kidney failure. Being in the hospital allows doctors to monitor kidney health and function while they work on figuring out what caused the kidney failure and how to prevent it from happening again. 

Immediate treatment for kidney failure

To deal with the immediate problem of the kidneys not working the way they should your doctor might put you on hemodialysis. Hemodialysis is when a special machine functions the way that your kidneys should function. It filters out waste, maintains your fluid levels, and makes sure that the toxins that your body produces don’t stick around long enough to damage your body or send your organs into failure. While you are receiving hemodialysis treatments your kidneys get a chance to rest while your doctor figures out the best way to treat them.  

Long-term treatment for kidney failure

Once the immediate threat is under control because of the hemodialysis, your doctor will try to figure out how to heal your kidneys and keep the kidney failure from happening again. The doctor will run lots of tests looking for kidney disease or an injury that might have caused the kidney failure. By the time you go home you will likely have additional appointments for therapy and recover to help you get back to the state of health you were in before the kidney failure occurred. 

Your doctor will want to continue to monitor your fluid levels and kidney activity. The best case scenario is that your kidneys will recover and with some diet and exercise changes you will be able to manage any long-term kidney disease. You also might need to start taking some medication to help treat any underlying causes that could be contributing to the kidney disease like diabetes or high blood pressure. 

If your kidneys are too damaged you may need a kidney transplant. If that’s the case you may need to spend more time in the hospital as you wait for a donor kidney so that you can continue to have dialysis to keep your body healthy while you wait for a donor kidney to become available. 

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.

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  1. https://www.cdc.gov/kidneydisease/publications-resources/2019-national-facts.html, 2019

  2. https://www.kidney.org/news/newsroom/factsheets/KidneyDiseaseBasics, accessed July 2020

  3. https://khn.org/news/no-cash-no-heart-transplant-centers-require-proof-of-payment, 2018


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