Kidney disease – renal failure

Symptoms of kidney (renal) failure do not usually appear until there is moderate to severe renal failure.

Kidney failure will bring many changes to your life, affecting both you and your wider sphere of influence; family, friends, colleagues.

Acceptance of living with renal failure does not always come quickly or without the help of others. Fortunately, most people do learn to live with kidney failure. With proper treatment, although life may not be able to return to exactly how it was, it can be just as good and even in different ways, better. It takes time and energy to adjust and reach acceptance but there are things that can be done to help.

The time people take to reach a place of accepting these changes also varies. Many people feel sad or depressed when they find out they have kidney failure. These feelings usually lessen and support is available if depression is ongoing.

In the advanced stages, kidney failure can cause some or all of the following symptoms:

  • tiredness or fatigue;
  • pallor (poor colour);
  • frequent urination (going to the toilet often);
  • nausea (feeling sick) and
  • swelling of the legs.

The buildup of waste products in your blood can cause behavioural changes, affecting irritability, memory loss, confusion, problems with sleep patterns, fatigue, loss of energy, anger and depression, amongst other things.


The treatment you will need depends on what stage of kidney disease you have and what caused it in the first place. In brief:

  • Stages 1 to 3 (early to moderate kidney failure) – reduce blood pressure, keep diabetes well controlled and take medication to reduce further damage to your kidneys.
  • Stage 3 – glomerular filtration rate (GFR) less than 60 – also referral to a nephrologist (kidney specialist)
  • Stages 4 to 5 – dialysis, renal transplantation or supportive measures are generally needed.

Failing kidneys and treatment options 

Source: Evans Health Lab. 

Self care

Living with kidney failure means more than just staying alive. It is a real challenge to live life to the fullest despite the limitations imposed by kidney failure.

This means coping with the many changes that face most people with kidney failure; from self-image and relationship struggles, work and holidays, leisure and recreation as well as fitness and exercise, dietary changes, and the physical changes to your body which also affect sexual function, fertility and menstruation.

  • Find out as much as possible about the disease process, treatment options and what to expect by reading, talking to people and asking questions.
  • Don't make major changes or commitments in haste, such as leaving your job, moving from your home or restructuring your finances.
  • Try to have regular, gentle exercise.
  • Set projects and goals important to you to try and achieve without letting kidney failure stop you.
  • Try to maintain relationships with family and friends, even though you may not feel your best or have a lot of energy. It is to be expected that with changes in health come changes in relationships, both from your side and from theirs. Remember that there is never a time that you will need the support of your friends and family more; social and psychological support is as important to your mental health as correct medical treatment is to your physical health.

Who can you talk to?

Renal units in New Zealand, usually located in large teaching hospitals, offer specialised help for those adjusting to kidney failure. This professional guidance can be a great help to the patient and their family in coping through this process. Your renal physician, nurses, dialysis staff and social worker are available to assist you.

Renal units also have access to psychiatrists, psychologists and chaplains should you desire them. Most renal units also have their own patient-run organisations and support groups. Information about these can be obtained from your renal unit social worker or staff, or from the New Zealand Kidney Foundation offices.

The New Zealand Kidney Foundation has patient support centres around New Zealand for people with kidney failure. This consists of a group of trained volunteers who have experienced kidney failure in their own families and offer their time to talk and share stories about their own personal experiences.

Learn more

Fact Sheets - range of topics (Kidney Health NZ)
Kidney Society Auckland

Credits: Original material provided by the New Zealand Kidney Foundation. Reviewed By: Health Navigator