Acute Kidney Injury | Kidney Disease

Kidney Disease

Acute Kidney Injury

We offer fast diagnosis and treatments for an acute kidney injury (AKI). You benefit from prompt care that stops and reverses kidney damage.

Medically reviewed by Nasim Wiegley, M.D. on Oct. 18, 2023.

Female health care provider smiling talking to a male patient.

What Is Acute Kidney Injury (AKI)?

Acute kidney injury (AKI) is the sudden decline in kidney function. Over a few days or weeks, your kidneys lose their ability to remove waste and fluids from your blood. You’re at risk for kidney failure, heart failure and other serious complications.

With prompt treatment, your kidneys can recover and work almost as well as before the injury. Kidney specialists (nephrologists) at the UC Davis Division of Nephrology expertly diagnose and treat acute kidney injuries. We offer comprehensive care to improve the health of your kidneys.

Acute kidney injury is also called acute kidney failure and acute renal failure. Acute means the condition is sudden and severe. Renal is the medical term for kidneys.


Acute Kidney Injury Symptoms

An early-stage kidney injury, or an injury that only affects one kidney, may not cause noticeable symptoms. More severe symptoms occur when the injury affects both kidneys and your kidneys continue to fail.

Common Symptoms

AKI may cause these symptoms:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Less frequent urination with brown-colored urine
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen feet, ankles or legs

Emergency Symptoms

Severe AKI can cause:  

  • Coma
  • Confusion or inability to concentrate
  • Fluid overload
  • Seizures

Causes of Acute Kidney Injury

Several conditions can lead to an acute kidney injury.

Kidney Damage

Blood clots, infections, substance use disorders and certain medications can damage your kidneys directly.

Certain Autoimmune Conditions

Some autoimmune conditions can cause significant inflammation of kidney tissue.

Poor Blood Flow to the Kidneys

Low blood pressure, severe blood loss, dehydration, heart disease and other conditions can restrict blood flow to your kidneys, injuring them.

Urinary Tract Blockage

Ureters are tubes that carry urine from your kidneys to the bladder. Kidney stones, an enlarged prostate, some cancers and bladder problems can block your ureters and damage your kidneys.


Risk Factors for Acute Kidney Injury

eople who are hospitalized, especially those receiving care in intensive care units (ICUs), are more likely to experience an acute kidney injury.

These factors also increase your risk:


AKIs are more common in people over 65.


Severe COVID-19 symptoms that require hospitalization or ICU services increase AKI risk.


People who take insulin to treat diabetes (high blood sugar) are more prone to kidney damage.

Heart Disease or Heart Surgery

People with heart disease, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more at risk. You may also experience a kidney injury while recovering from major cardiac surgery.

Kidney Disease

A history of chronic kidney disease or other kidney disease raises your risk.

Peripheral Arterial Disease

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) reduces blood flow to your lower limbs. This reduced blood flow can also damage your kidneys.

Severe Fluid Loss

Severe dehydration can cause a kidney injury. Dehydration and AKIs are more common in people recovering from life-threatening burn injuries.

Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure (hypertension) that isn’t properly treated can weaken the blood vessels that carry blood to and from your kidneys.


Diagnosing Acute Kidney Injury

An acute kidney injury doesn’t always cause noticeable symptoms during the early stage. If you’re hospitalized for another issue, our team monitors your kidneys for signs of injury.

We use these tests to diagnose an acute kidney injury: 

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can show changes to potassium, phosphorous and sodium levels. These indicate kidney damage. 
  • Creatine test: This blood test measures a waste product called creatinine in your blood. High creatine levels are a sign of kidney damage.
  • Estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR): This blood test measures impurities in your blood. The results indicate how well your kidneys are working.
  • Urine tests: A urinalysis measures electrolytes like potassium, sodium and calcium in your urine. Your doctor may also have you collect your urine to see if the amount is too low.
  • Imaging tests: An ultrasound or CT scan provides images of your kidneys and bladder.
  • Angiogram: This X-ray procedure uses an injectable dye to show blockages in blood vessels.

Acute Kidney Injury Treatments

Treatments for acute kidney injuries vary depending on the cause. At UC Davis Health, we quickly pinpoint the cause and start immediate treatments to protect your kidneys. We offer a full range of AKI treatments.

Medication Management

Medications can lower your blood pressure and potassium levels, if needed. You may also need diuretics to help remove excess fluid from your body.


If a urinary blockage causes the injury, you may need a surgical procedure to remove the blockage and improve urine flow.


Some people need short-term dialysis in the hospital while their kidneys recover. Dialysis uses a machine to filter your blood when your kidneys fail.

Nutrition Counseling

After you recover from AKI, our Food and Nutrition Services experts can help you make kidney-healthy dietary changes. For instance, you may need to cut back on sodium or potassium.


Preventing Acute Kidney Injury (AKI)

It isn’t always possible to prevent an acute kidney injury. We offer health education classes that help you manage conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure that increase your risk for acute kidney injuries. You can also sign up for Caring for Your Kidneys classes.

These steps can also keep your kidneys healthy:

Don’t Smoke

Our Stop Tobacco Program (SToP) can help you quit.

Eat a Kidney-Healthy Diet

Eat a low-sodium, low-fat diet that includes fresh vegetables and fruits.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Alcohol can be hard on your kidneys. Cutting back on drinking can give your kidneys space to recover.

Manage Other Conditions

Treating risk factors for AKI, like high blood pressure and diabetes, can minimize kidney damage.

Who does it affect?

30%Of ICU patients develop an acute kidney injury

Source: National Library of Medicine: Acute Kidney Injury

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