Childhood Kidney Diseases

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

Your kidneys act as a filter for the blood in your body, controlling the amount of water and waste. Kidney disease occurs when the kidneys become damaged and can no longer function as a filter. This can cause waste and fluid to build up in your body.1

Kidney disease often is considered a condition that affects adults. However, it can occur in children. The exact number of children affected by kidney disease is difficult to determine. Children may be diagnosed late because they may have few to no symptoms in the early stages. But experts believe that kidney disease is not common in children.1

They also know that kidney disease is more likely to affect boys than girls. And Black children are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop kidney disease than white children in North America.1

Symptoms of kidney disease in children

Symptoms of kidney disease can vary for every child. Children in the early stages of kidney disease may have no symptoms. As the condition worsens, symptoms may include:1

  • Swollen feet, legs, hands or face
  • An increase or decrease in peeing (urination)
  • Foamy urine
  • Pink or brown urine

Most common types of childhood kidney disease

In adults, kidney disease is often linked with diabetes and high blood pressure. But this is not the case with children. Childhood kidney disease can be passed down in families or caused by birth defects. Kidney disease can also develop later as a result of a health problem such as an infection.3-7

The most common types of childhood kidney diseases are:3-7

  • Obstruction of the urethra – A narrowing or blockage of the opening where urine leaves the bladder. This often is treated with surgery.
  • Fetal hydronephrosis – A condition when one or both kidneys are abnormally large. It is caused by a blockage in the body’s drainage system (urinary tract).
  • Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) – A condition in which fluid-filled sacs (cysts) develop in both kidneys. If there are too many cysts or they grow too large, it can lead to kidney failure. The symptoms can be mild to severe. Treatment for this type of kidney disease ranges from diet changes to procedures such as dialysis or kidney transplant.
  • Multicystic kidney disease – A condition where large cysts develop in a kidney and lead to kidney failure. This is different from PKD in that it typically affects only one kidney.
  • Renal tubular acidosis – A condition in which the kidneys become damaged and are unable to remove acid from the blood. This condition usually runs in families.
  • Wilms tumor – A type of kidney cancer that can affect both kidneys but may only develop in one. It is typically due to a genetic change (mutation) and can be cured in most children.
  • Glomerulonephritis – A condition in which the tiny blood vessels inside the kidneys that filter blood (glomeruli) become irritated and swollen. Symptoms may develop over time and can lead to kidney damage or kidney failure. Causes can include bacterial or viral infections. Glomerulonephritis also may be passed down in families.

Complications of kidney disease in children

Kidney disease can affect children in many ways. Other health problems (complications) related to kidney disease may include:1

  • Lower red blood cell count
  • Heart disease
  • Growth problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Infection
  • Imbalances of the minerals in the body

Children also may develop problems with:1

  • Behavior
  • Relationships
  • Self-esteem
  • Concentration and learning
  • Development of language and motor skills

Fortunately, dialysis and kidney transplants have increased the survival rate of children with kidney disease. Although long-term survival is more likely, kidney disease does affect their quality of life. Children with kidney disease may have:8

  • Interruptions in school and everyday activities
  • Frequent doctor visits
  • Caregivers with emotional, social, and financial burdens

Children's doctors should assess these issues and provide the appropriate referrals to address the children's needs.8

Can kidney disease be prevented?

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent kidney disease in children. But getting treatment early may help to slow down or prevent worsening of the disease. Parents can help their children with kidney disease by:1

  • Keeping their child on a diet recommended by their child’s doctor
  • Tracking the amount of liquid their child takes in
  • Making sure their child takes all drugs as prescribed
  • Talking to their child's doctor before giving the child any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements

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