What Is Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 05, 2021
3 min read

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is a condition that affects the blood vessels in your kidneys. When the vessels are damaged, they form clots that block the kidney's regular filtering system, leading to the failure of the organs. 

HUS can happen anytime in your life, even during childhood. This condition can be life-threatening if not treated at the right time. Fortunately, most children recover. 

Mostly, HUS happens in people with severe bowel infections. These infections are caused by E. coli — a particularly toxic bacterial strain — found mainly in contaminated water, food, or person-to-person interaction.

When these toxins enter the bloodstream, they cause damage that leads to HUS.

Other HUS causes include: 

  • Infections, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or influenza
  • Intake of certain medications, including organ transplant-related drugs used to suppress the immune system
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancer (rarely)

Atypical HUS — an inherited type — doesn't cause HUS in children immediately. But, the above causes can activate the condition. ‌

HUS symptoms usually vary from person to person, depending on the cause. HUS due to the E. coli bacteria affects your digestive system before damaging the blood vessels.

The initial symptoms of HUS include:

  • Diarrhea with blood
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Abdominal bloating
  • Vomiting

When HUS damages your blood vessels, it leads to the breakdown of red blood cells — causing anemia and blood clots in the kidney's blood vessels. 

The symptoms of these changes include:

  • Pale complexion
  • Extreme drowsiness 
  • High blood pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Low urination or blood in the urine
  • Seizures or stroke
  • Frequent bruising
  • Bleeding from the nose and mouth
  • Swelling of the entire body or specific parts

Your kidneys have small filter units, known as glomeruli. When you develop HUS, the damaged red blood cells and platelets (essential blood components) in the blood block these filter units. This keeps the kidney from filtering waste products, and it fails.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome treatment needs special medical care:

  • Transfusions of red blood cells and platelets: This includes intravenous (IV) fluids and essential nutritional supplements tube feeding. The transfusion of red blood cells treats anemia, and platelets help blood clot after a wound.
  • Medications: In the case of atypical HUS, your doctor may recommend eculizumab (Soliris) to avoid more damage to your vessels.
  • Dialysis: In severe kidney failure, doctors recommend dialysis to perform kidney functions — filtering out waste from the blood. 
  • Plasma transfusion: This involves blood or plasma transfusions to improve the circulation of blood.
  • Kidney transplant. People with severe kidney failure will eventually need a new kidney. 

Most people on dialysis recover from kidney failure caused by HUS.

The recovery chances from HUS are more than 85%. People with common HUS can recover from kidney failure. However, they may face blood pressure or kidney problems in the future.

If HUS hasn't affected vital organs like the brain, liver, and heart, you may not observe any complications in the years ahead.

Since bowel infection is one of the major hemolytic uremic syndrome causes, there is a chance HUS can spread via water, air, food, or pets. 

The best way you can prevent HUS from happening in the first place (if it's not atypical HUS) is to keep your surroundings clean. This way, you will stay away from infection-causing bacteria and viruses.

Other necessary preventive measures against HUS include:

  • Don't keep any unpasteurized milk or juice boxes in your refrigerator.
  • Avoid swimming if you have diarrhea. Otherwise, don't swim in unclean pools.
  • Wash and sanitize your hands before cooking or eating after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or cleaning.
  • Wipe out the dust particles from the utensils before eating or cooking anything in them.
  • Wash the fruits and vegetables before taking a bite.
  • Always cook meat properly. The recommended cooking temperature should be at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Never cook frozen meat directly from the freezer. Instead, defrost it in a microwave beforehand.
  • Make separate compartments of raw foods and ready-to-eat foods in your refrigerator.