Learn about symptoms, causes and treatments for acute and chronic glomerulonephritis, a type of kidney inflammation.
Glomerulonephritis (gloe-MER-u-loe-nuh-FRY-tis) is inflammation of the tiny filters in the kidneys (glomeruli). The excess fluid and waste that glomeruli (gloe-MER-u-lie) remove from the bloodstream exit the body as urine. Glomerulonephritis can come on suddenly (acute) or gradually (chronic).
Glomerulonephritis occurs on its own or as part of another disease, such as lupus or diabetes. Severe or prolonged inflammation associated with glomerulonephritis can damage the kidneys. Treatment depends on the type of glomerulonephritis you have.
The kidneys remove waste and excess fluid from your blood through filtering units called nephrons. Each nephron contains a filter (glomerulus) that has a network of tiny blood vessels called capillaries. When blood flows into a glomerulus, tiny molecules — water, essential minerals and nutrients, and wastes — pass through the capillary walls. Large molecules, such as proteins and red blood cells, do not. The filtered solution then passes into another part of the nephron called the tubule. The water, nutrients and minerals your body needs are transferred back to the bloodstream. The excess water and waste become urine that flows to the bladder.
Signs and symptoms of glomerulonephritis may vary depending on whether you have the acute or chronic form and the cause. You may notice no symptoms of chronic disease. Your first indication that something is wrong might come from the results of a routine urine test (urinalysis).
Glomerulonephritis signs and symptoms may include:
Make an appointment with your health care provider promptly if you have signs or symptoms of glomerulonephritis.
Many conditions can cause glomerulonephritis. Sometimes the disease runs in families and sometimes the cause is unknown. Factors that can lead to inflammation of the glomeruli include the following conditions
Infectious diseases can directly or indirectly lead to glomerulonephritis. These infections include:
Autoimmune diseases are illnesses caused by the immune system attacking healthy tissues. Autoimmune diseases that may cause glomerulonephritis include:
Vasculitis is inflammation of blood vessels. Types of vasculitis that can cause glomerulonephritis include:
Some diseases or conditions cause scarring of the glomeruli that results in poor and declining kidney function. These include:
Infrequently, chronic glomerulonephritis runs in families. One inherited form, Alport syndrome, also might impair hearing or vision.
Glomerulonephritis is associated with certain cancers, such as gastric cancer, lung cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Glomerulonephritis affects the ability of nephrons to filter the bloodstream efficiently. The breakdown in filtering results in:
Possible complications of glomerulonephritis include:
There may be no way to prevent some forms of glomerulonephritis. However, here are some steps that might be beneficial:
Glomerulonephritis may be identified with tests if you have an acute illness or during routine testing during a wellness visit or an appointment managing a chronic disease, such as diabetes. Tests to assess your kidney function and make a diagnosis of glomerulonephritis include:
During a kidney biopsy, your doctor uses a needle to remove a small sample of kidney tissue for lab testing. The biopsy needle is inserted through your skin and is often directed using the guidance of an imaging device, such as ultrasound.
Treatment of glomerulonephritis and your outcome depend on:
Some cases of acute glomerulonephritis, especially those that follow an infection with streptococcal bacteria, might improve on their own and require no treatment. If there's an underlying cause — such as high blood pressure, an infection or an autoimmune disease — treatment will be directed to the underlying cause.
In general, the goal of treatment is to protect your kidneys from further damage and to preserve kidney function.
Kidney failure is the loss of 85% or more of kidney function. Acute kidney failure due to infection-related glomerulonephritis is treated with dialysis. Dialysis uses a device that works like an artificial, external kidney that filters your blood.
End-stage kidney disease is chronic kidney disease that can only be managed by regular kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant.
If you have kidney disease, your doctor might recommend certain lifestyle changes:
Living with a chronic illness can tax your emotional resources. If you have chronic glomerulonephritis or chronic kidney failure, you might benefit from joining a support group. A support group can provide both sympathetic listening and useful information.
To find a support group, ask your doctor for a recommendation or contact the National Kidney Foundation to find the chapter nearest you.
You'll likely start by seeing your primary care provider. If lab tests reveal that you have kidney damage, you might be referred to a doctor who specializes in kidney problems (nephrologist).
To get ready for your appointment, ask if there's anything you need to do ahead of time, such as limit what you eat and drink. Then make a list of items you'll likely need to discuss with your health care provider:
Take a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember the information you're given.
When you have follow-up appointments after a diagnosis of glomerulonephritis, you may want to ask the following questions: