11 Symptoms of a Kidney Problem (with online quiz)

Updated in January 2022

Symptoms that indicate a kidney problem are rare, but when they exist, the first symptoms to appear are a significant reduction in urine and a change in how it looks. Other common symptoms are itching, extreme swelling in the legs and constant fatigue.

Because not all people will present with symptoms, the best way to know if you have a kidney problem is to ensure your routine urine and blood testing is up-to-date. If necessary, an ultrasound or CT may also be ordered. These exams are especially important if you have an increased risk for kidney disease, which is the case for diabetics, older adults or people with a positive family history of high blood pressure or kidney failure.

If you think you may have a kidney symptoms, report the symptoms you are feeling to assess your risk:

  1. 1. Frequent urge to urinate
  2. 2. Urinating small volumes at a time
  3. 3. Constant pain in the lower back
  4. 4. Swelling of the legs, feet, arms, or face
  5. 5. Itching all over the body
  6. 6. Excessive tiredness for no apparent reason
  7. 7. Changes to urine color or smell
  8. 8. Presence of foam in the urine
  9. 9. Difficulty sleeping or poor sleep
  10. 10. Loss of appetite and metallic taste in the mouth
  11. 11. Feeling of pressure in the belly when urinating

If you have more than 2 of these symptoms, you should see your family doctor or nephrologist to complete diagnostic exams. From here, a diagnosis can be confirmed and appropriate treatment can be started as necessary.

The most common kidney problems

The problems that most frequently affect the kidneys are: 

  • Kidney stones: which consist of a build-up of small masses within the kidney. These can block or impede urine flow from the bladder;
  • Renal cysts: which are common with aging. They can cause pain if they are large;
  • Polycystic renal disease: which is characterized by many cysts in the kidneys, which can impede their function
  • Hydronephrosis: which occurs when urine is unable to flow from the urine and starts to build-up inside the kidney
  • Kidney failure: which occurs when progressively worsening lesions in the kidney impede its functioning
  • Kidney infections: which are caused by bacteria that reach the kidneys through the urinary tracts or through the blood. They are most common in women and can cause symptoms like fever, vomiting and back pain
  • Acute kidney injury: which occurs specifically in people who are admitted to the hospital with a UTI, in people who have a history of kidney issues, or in older adults whose kidneys stop working spontaneously for a short amount of time (about 2 days). These require urgent treatment.

In addition, people with chronic illnesses that are not controlled (like hypertension or diabetes) can also develop chronic renal disease that will cause small kidney lesions over time. It can eventually turn into kidney failure.

Kidney cancer is also very common, and most frequently occurs in men over the age of 60. It causes symptoms like blood in the urine, frequent fatigue, weight loss for no apparent reason, constant fever, and the presence of a module on the back, on the affected side.

How to treat kidney problems

Treatment for kidney abnormalities should be based on the diagnosis. In more acute cases, like small cysts or kidney stones, symptoms can be relieved with simple diet changes, like drinking more water, and avoiding excess salt or calcium intake.

In more serious cases, like kidney failure or chronic kidney disease, treatment needs to be guided by a nephrologist. You may need to control your water intake, take specific medication, participate in dialysis or complete surgery to treat the kidney wounds. 

With cancer, surgery is almost always necessary to remove the kidney tumor, as tumors are serious findings. You may also have to receive chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the remaining cancer cells.

In addition, if you have another illness that affects the kidneys, like diabetes or hypertension, it is important to complete all treatment has indicated by your doctor to avoid further kidney injury.

Which exams to do

Tests that can be done to diagnose kidney problems are:

  • Bloodwork: To evaluate the levels of substances that are normally eliminated by the kidneys, like creatnine and urea
  • Urine test: To check for protein or blood in the urine that could indicate a kidney problem
  • Ultrasound or CT scan: which can help to identify changes in kidney shape and monitor for cysts or tumors
  • Biopsy: which is normally done when cancer is suspected, but can be used to identify other problems

These tests can be ordered by the family doctor or nephrologist. Therefore, anytime you suspect a kidney problem, you should see your doctor to confirm whether one exists.