1.8 million Australians don’t know they have kidney disease

Our kidneys play an important role in our health.

They house millions of microscopic filters that work around the clock to remove toxins and waste from our blood, releasing them in our urine. The kidneys also control levels of electrolytes in our body, including potassium, which is important in regulating our heart rhythms, and help our bone health by processing vitamin D. When your kidneys aren’t working properly, it can affect your blood pressure, your heart, your bones and your blood.

Our kidneys are great at what they do – working hard without us even realising it. Unfortunately, this means that we can lose 90% of our kidney function before symptoms start appearing. Common symptoms include swollen ankles or high blood pressure, less urine when you go to the bathroom, and feeling nauseous or confused.

Acute Kidney Injuries

Acute kidney injuries (AKIs) are when there is a sudden decrease in your kidney’s ability to function, which is usually due to another illness going on in the body. These injuries happen because the kidneys are getting less blood flow from the body.  Other causes include inflammation of the kidney, or a blockage preventing the kidney from excreting waste. Certain medications can also contribute to AKIs.

You are more at risk of developing an acute kidney injury if you:

  • are 65 years old or older
  • have sepsis
  • are dehydrated
  • have pre-existing kidney conditions such as chronic kidney disease
  • have heart failure, liver disease or diabetes
  • have kidney stones or an enlarged prostate
  • are taking NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen), ACE inhibitors or diuretics, or
  • are taking aminoglycosides – a type of antibiotic.

Some signs that you might have an AKI are having less urine output, diarrhoea or being confused or drowsy. Treatment of an AKI depends on the cause. Your kidneys may recover from an acute kidney injury and return to its normal function. However, some people do not return to their baseline kidney function, and may have permanent kidney damage.

Chronic Kidney Disease

When kidneys lose function over time it is called chronic kidney disease (CKD). For most people with CKD, it is due to diabetes or high blood pressure. 1 in every 5 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples have signs of kidney disease, compared to 1 in every 10 for the general Australian population. In remote and very remote areas of Australia, First Nations Australians are 20 times more likely to have kidney disease than non-Indigenous Australians. Chronic kidney disease was responsible for 11% of all deaths in 2020, so it is important that we talk about ways to improve our kidney health and prevent any further damage.

Factors that put you at higher risk of developing kidney disease are:

  • being 60 years or older
  • having a history of acute kidney injuries or AKI
  • having a family history of kidney disease
  • having a history of smoking, or being a current smoker
  • having a history of cardiovascular issues such as a heart attack, or stroke
  • having high blood pressure, and
  • having diabetes.

Treatment options vary depending on the level of kidney function remaining for an individual. At end stages when the kidney is failing, dialysis where your blood is filtered through a machine acting similarly to your kidneys, or a kidney transplant are required.

Seven ways to improve your kidney health

  1. Keeping a healthy diet – this includes reducing salt, sugar and fats in our diet. Some simple tips include swapping to fat-free dairy products, baking meats instead or frying, and cooking with a range of spices
  2. Regular physical activity – at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day. This should alternate between comfortable activity, and physical activity that makes you huff and puff.
  3. Maintaining a healthy weight – supplemented by a good diet and physical activity
  4. Stopping smoking – smoking affects our heart and blood vessels in the kidneys, and increases the risk of developing some kidney cancers
  5. Limiting alcohol intake – alcohol reduces the ability of our kidney’s filtration systems to work, so alcohol should be limited to one standard drink per day for women, and two for men
  6. Drinking water – water helps remove waste from our blood through the kidneys, so drink up!
  7. Keeping other health conditions in check – monitor your blood pressure, and your sugar levels. See your doctor to improve these levels

As the incidence of kidney disease is more prevalent in First Nations Australians and in rural and remote communities, it is important to get the health of your kidneys checked with your rural doctor. This will involve taking your blood pressure and doing both a urine and blood test to check for markers of kidney disease.

Prevention is always better than a cure – particularly for those living remotely – as often treatment for chronic disease may need intervention at a larger hospital.

Kidney Health Australia has comprehensive information about acute kidney injuries, chronic kidney disease and healthy living.