Conditions that Cause Kidney Failure

There are many diseases and conditions that can lead to kidney failure. Kidney failure can be acute with rapid onset and may be reversible or it can be chronic and progress over time before resulting in permanent kidney failure at end stage renal disease (ESRD). Some of these types of kidney disease and their causes have complex-sounding medical names you may be unfamiliar with. This quick guide can help make sense of them.   

Understanding causes of chronic kidney disease and ESRD

  • Diabetic nephropathy—a glomerular disease caused by kidney damage due to diabetes. It’s the most common type of kidney disease in the U.S. and often leads to kidney failure.
  • Glomerular disease or glomerulonephritis—damage to the filtering structures in the kidney (glomeruli) caused by inflammation. It may run in your family or be caused by an immune disorder or infection. It’s the second most common type of kidney disease in the U.S. and often leads to kidney failure.
  • Acute kidney injury (AKI)—a sudden illness of the kidneys resulting from one of many causes. AKI may result from an injury that damages the kidneys or a lack of blood flow to the kidneys. It can also occur if urine is blocked from leaving the kidneys by something such as an enlarged prostate or kidney stones. The buildup of toxins and pressure can then cause kidney damage, which may lead to acute kidney failure.
  • Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)—an inherited disease in which cysts (noncancerous masses) form in the kidneys. PKD may eventually lead to kidney failure.  
  • Nephrotic syndrome—a condition resulting from glomerular disease that’s caused by excess protein in your urine due to damage to the filtering structures in the kidney (glomeruli). Nephrotic syndrome can lead to high blood pressure and is a significant signal that your kidneys are not working well.
  • Lupus nephritis—a condition caused by the autoimmune disease lupus, which results in kidney damage and scarring. Lupus nephritis can lead to CKD and eventually ESRD.


Learning the medical terms 

Some of the names for types of kidney disease or conditions can seem complicated, until you understand the root of the words. Here are some definitions that may help:

Acute: happens suddenly

Chronic: happens over a long time, often years; can be repeated episodes or continuous

-itis: inflammation

Glomerulus: one of the tiny filters inside the kidneys; plural is glomeruli

Nephro-: refers to the kidneys

-pathy: disease

Poly-: many

-tic: related to

Breakdown of the words Diabetic Nephropathy and Glomerulonephritis. "Diabe" relates to "diabetes", "-tic" mens "related", "nephro" relates to "kidney" and "-pathy" means "disease". In Glomerulonephritis, "glomerulo" means "filtering structure", "-nephyr" means "in the kidney", and "itis" means "is inflamed".


You may hear your care team combine these terms. Here are 2 common examples:

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