How Do I Know If I Have Kidney Disease?

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on December 16, 2022
3 min read

The signs of kidney disease are easy to miss. Many look like symptoms of common health problems. More severe signs might not show up until your kidneys have started to fail. That’s why only 10% of people with chronic kidney disease know they have it.

Knowing the warning signs can help you get diagnosed and treated early -- and stave off more serious health problems.

Your kidneys -- bean-shaped organs on either side of your spine -- are small, but they have a big job when it comes to your health. They filter extra water and waste from your blood, make urine, and help control your blood pressure. If they are damaged and stop working like they should, you have kidney disease.

Several things increase your chances of getting it:

African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans are at greater risk than other groups.

Kidney disease gets worse over time as waste and fluid build up in your body. Here are the warning signs:

  • Changes in your urine. You might pee more or less than normal. Or you could notice a change in color or that your pee is foamy. This means that protein is seeping out of your kidneys. Blood in the urine is another sign. 
  • Dry and itchy skin. This can happen when your kidneys are no longer able to balance the minerals and nutrients in your blood.
  • Swelling. Your kidneys help even out the amount of sodium (salt) in your body. When they’re not working well, your body hangs on to extra salt. This can cause puffy skin around your ankles and feet. You may also notice it in your hands or around your eyes.
  • Upset stomach. Built-up waste in your blood can cause nausea and loss of appetite.
  • Fatigue. Your kidneys produce a hormone that tells your body to make red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. If they’re not working right, this doesn’t get done, and you can have a health problem called anemia. You may feel tired, even after you rest. Your sleep quality may suffer, too.

If you think you’re at risk for kidney disease, you can ask your doctor to test your kidney function. This requires a urine test and a blood test.

In a urine test, your doctor will look for traces of blood. They’ll also check your pee for a type of protein called albumin. If the result comes back positive, they may want a re-test to confirm. 

In a blood test, doctors look for a waste product called creatinine. When kidneys are damaged, they have a hard time cleaning this from your blood. Once your doctor knows how much creatinine is in your blood, they can use this, along with your age, race, and sex to measure how well your kidneys are working.

It’s rare for kidney disease to simply go away. Over time, it’s likely to get worse. Because of that, the sooner you find out that you have it, the better. Early treatment may prevent your kidneys from failing. But there’s no “one-size-fits-all” treatment for this condition. It depends on several things, including what caused your kidney disease.

Your doctor likely will start by taking care of other conditions you have. For instance, you may need to start a daily medication to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol. Symptoms caused by your kidney disease, like anemia or swelling, can also be treated with medicine.

Lifestyle changes can help:

  • Try to work out often and get down to a weight that’s right for you.
  • Eat less protein and salt so you reduce the amount of work your kidneys must do.
  • Watch the amount of alcohol you drink.
  • If you smoke, now’s a good time to quit.
  • Avoid taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These are hard on your kidneys.

Your goal is to keep your kidneys working for as long as they can. People whose kidneys have failed will need dialysis (a treatment that cleans waste from the blood) or a kidney transplant to live.