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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

End-stage renal disease is a condition in which the kidneys no longer function normally. "Renal" describes anything having to do with the kidneys. Nearly everyone is born with two kidneys. They both need to fail for end-stage renal disease to develop.

Kidneys eliminate poisons from the body, and keep a normal balance of fluid and certain minerals in the body. When the kidneys can no longer perform this function, a person becomes very ill and ultimately dies.

In end-stage renal disease, the kidneys function at a fraction of their normal capacity. When this occurs, there are only two options: replace the job the kidneys are supposed to do by using a machine, instead (kidney dialysis) or transplant a new, healthy kidney. A single new kidney can do the work of the two kidneys.

Diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease. Kidney disease can result from type 1 or type 2 diabetes. With either type, poor control of blood sugar increases the risk of end-stage renal disease.

Other common causes of end-stage renal disease are:

  • High blood pressure

  • Atherosclerosis

  • Autoimmune diseases like systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)

  • Genetic disorders, such as polycystic kidney disease

  • Exposure to toxic drugs, including:

    • certain antibiotics

    • chemotherapy

    • contrast dyes

    • pain relievers

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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