Each year in the United States, nearly 100,000 people are diagnosed with kidney failure, a serious condition in which the kidneys fail to rid the body of wastes. Kidney failure is the final stage of a slow deterioration of the kidneys, a disease process known as nephropathy.
Diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure, accounting for more than 40 percent of new cases. Even when drugs and diet are able to control diabetes, the disease can lead to nephropathy and kidney failure. Most people with diabetes do not develop nephropathy that is severe enough to cause kidney failure. About 17 million people in the United States have diabetes, and over 100,000 people are living with kidney failure as a result of diabetes.
People with kidney failure undergo either dialysis, which substitutes for some of the filtering functions of the kidneys, or transplantation to receive a healthy donor kidney. Most U.S. citizens who develop kidney failure are eligible for federally funded care. In 2000, care for patients with kidney failure cost the Nation nearly $20 billion.
African Americans, American Indians, and Hispanic Americans develop diabetes, nephropathy, and kidney failure at rates higher than average. Scientists have not been able to explain these higher rates. Nor can they explain fully the interplay of factors leading to diabetic nephropathy--factors including heredity, diet, and other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure. They have found that high blood pressure and high levels of blood glucose increase the risk that a person with diabetes will progress to kidney failure.
On this page:
- Who is at risk?
- What are the signs of proteinuria and kidney failure?
- What are the tests for proteinuria?
- How is proteinuria treated?
- Hope Through Research
- Points to Remember
- For More Information
Proteinuria describes a condition in which urine contains an abnormal amount of protein. Proteins are the building blocks for all body parts, including muscles, bones, hair, and nails. Proteins in your blood also perform a number of important functions. They protect you from infection, help your blood coagulate, and keep the right amount of fluid circulating through your body.
As blood passes through healthy kidneys, they filter the waste products out and leave in the things the body needs, like proteins. Most proteins are too big to pass through the kidneys' filters into the urine unless the kidneys are damaged. The main protein that is most likely to appear in urine is albumin. Albumin is smaller and therefore more likely to escape through the filters of the kidney, called glomeruli. Sometimes the term albuminuria is used when the test detects albumin specifically. Albumin’s function in the body includes retention of fluid in the blood. It acts like a sponge, soaking up fluid from body tissues.
Inflammation in the glomeruli is called glomerulonephritis, or simply nephritis. Many diseases can cause this inflammation, which leads to proteinuria. Additional processes that can damage the glomeruli and cause proteinuria include diabetes, hypertension, and other forms of kidney diseases.
Research shows that the level and type of proteinuria (whether the urinary proteins are albumin only or include other proteins) strongly determine the extent of damage and whether you are at risk for developing progressive kidney failure.
Proteinuria has also been shown to be associated with cardiovascular disease. Damaged blood vessels may lead to heart failure or stroke as well as kidney failure. If your doctor finds that you have proteinuria, you will want to do what you can to protect your health and prevent any of these diseases from developing.
Several health organizations recommend that some people be regularly checked for proteinuria to detect and treat kidney disease before it progresses. A 1996 study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health determined that proteinuria is the best predictor of progressive kidney failure in people with type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends regular urine testing for proteinuria for people with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. The National Kidney Foundation recommends that routine checkups include testing for excess protein in the urine, especially for people in high-risk groups.[Top]
Who is at risk?
People with diabetes, hypertension, or certain family backgrounds are at risk for proteinuria. In the United States, diabetes is the leading cause of end-stage renal disease (ESRD), the result of chronic kidney disease. In both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, the first sign of deteriorating kidney function is the presence of small amounts of albumin in the urine, a condition called microalbuminuria. As kidney function declines, the amount of albumin in the urine increases, and microalbuminuria becomes full-fledged proteinuria.
High blood pressure is the second leading cause of ESRD. Proteinuria in people with high blood pressure is an indicator of declining kidney function. If the hypertension is not controlled, the person can progress to full renal failure.
African Americans are more likely than white Americans to have high blood pressure and to develop kidney problems from it, even when their blood pressure is only mildly elevated. In fact, African Americans ages 20 to 49 are 20 times more likely than their white counterparts to develop hypertension-related kidney failure. High blood pressure is the leading cause of kidney failure among African Americans.
Other groups at risk for proteinuria are American Indians, Hispanic Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, older people, and obese / overweight people. People who have a family history of kidney disease should also have their urine tested regularly.[Top]
What are the signs of proteinuria and kidney failure?
Large amounts of protein in your urine may cause it to look foamy in the toilet. Also, because the protein has left your body, your blood can no longer soak up enough fluid and you may notice swelling in your hands, feet, abdomen, or face. These are signs of very large protein loss. More commonly, you may have proteinuria without noticing any signs or symptoms. Testing is the only way to find out how much protein you have in your urine.[Top]
What are the tests for proteinuria?
To test for proteinuria, you will need to give a urine sample. A strip of chemically treated paper will change color when dipped in urine that has too much protein. More sensitive tests for protein or albumin in the urine are recommended for people at risk for kidney disease, especially those with diabetes. The protein-to-creatinine or albumin-to-creatinine ratio can be measured on a sample of urine to detect smaller amounts of protein, which can indicate kidney disease. If the laboratory test shows high levels of protein, another test should be done 1 to 2 weeks later. If the second test also shows high levels of protein, you have persistent proteinuria and should have additional tests to evaluate your kidney function.
Your doctor will also test a sample of your blood for creatinine and urea nitrogen. These are waste products that healthy kidneys remove from the blood. High levels of creatinine and urea nitrogen in your blood indicate that kidney function is impaired.[Top]
How is proteinuria treated?
If you have diabetes, hypertension, or both, the first goal of treatment will be to control your blood glucose and blood pressure. If you have diabetes, you should test your blood glucose often, follow a healthy eating plan, take your medicines, and get plenty of exercise. If you have diabetes and high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe a medicine from a class of drugs called ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB). These drugs have been found to protect kidney function even more than other drugs that provide the same level of blood pressure control. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes keep their blood pressure below 130/80.
People who have high blood pressure and proteinuria but not diabetes may also benefit from taking an ACE inhibitor or ARB. Their blood pressure should be maintained below 130/80.
In addition to blood glucose and blood pressure control, the National Kidney Foundation recommends restricting dietary salt and protein. Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian to help you follow a healthy eating plan.[Top]
Hope Through Research
In recent years, researchers have learned much about kidney disease. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) sponsors several programs aimed at understanding kidney failure and finding treatments to stop its progression.
NIDDK’s Division of Kidney, Urologic, and Hematologic Diseases (DKUHD) supports basic research into normal kidney function and the diseases that impair normal function at the cellular and molecular levels, including diabetes, high blood pressure, glomerulonephritis, and other diseases marked by proteinuria.[Top]
Points to Remember
Proteinuria is a condition in which urine contains an abnormal amount of protein.
The term albuminuria is also often used because some tests measure this protein specifically and it is the major type of protein in the urine.
Proteinuria may be a sign that your kidneys are damaged and that you are at risk for end-stage renal disease
Several health organizations recommend that people be regularly checked for proteinuria so that kidney disease can be detected and treated before it progresses.
Groups at risk for proteinuria and kidney failure include African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic Americans, Pacific Islander Americans, people who have diabetes or hypertension, and people who have a family history of kidney disease.
You may have proteinuria without noticing any signs or symptoms. Testing is the only way to find out how much protein you have in your urine.
If you have diabetes or hypertension, or both, the first goal of treatment will be to control your blood glucose and blood pressure.
For More InformationTop]
National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3580
The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). The NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Established in 1987, the clearinghouse provides information about diseases of the kidneys and urologic system to people with kidney and urologic disorders and to their families, health care professionals, and the public. NKUDIC answers inquiries, develops and distributes publications, and works closely with professional and patient organizations and Government agencies to coordinate resources about kidney and urologic diseases.
Publications produced by the clearinghouse are carefully reviewed by both NIDDK scientists and outside experts.
This e-text is not copyrighted. The clearinghouse encourages users of this e-pub to duplicate and distribute as many copies as desired.
NIH Publication No. 03-4732
The NKUDIC Clearinghouse is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health
National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3580