Introduction to Kidney Disease

Introduction to Kidney Function and Disease

Each year, only one or two children out of every 100,000 - who are 19 years old or younger - experience kidney failure. By comparison, adults are 20 times more likely to develop kidney failure than children, with the risk increasing steadily with age.

Moreover, African Americans in their late teens are three times more likely than Caucasians in the same age group to develop kidney failure, as well as diseases that damage the tiny blood vessels in the kidney. In addition, boys are nearly twice as likely as girls to develop kidney failure from birth defects, polycystic kidney disease, or other hereditary diseases.

The Dialysis Unit at Cincinnati Children’s provides information for patients and families to better understand kidney function, kidney failure and kidney diseases – both acute and chronic.


Understanding the Kidneys

The kidneys are two bean-shaped organs located near the middle of the back, just below the rib cage. When blood flows through the kidneys, waste products and excess water are removed from the blood and sent to the bladder as urine. The kidneys also regulate blood pressure, balance chemicals like sodium and potassium, and make hormones to help bones grow and keep the blood healthy by making new red blood cells.

Kidney failure may be acute or chronic. Acute diseases develop quickly and can be very serious. Although an acute disease may have long-lasting consequences, it usually lasts for only a short time and then goes away once the underlying cause has been treated. Chronic diseases, however, do not go away and tend to worsen over time. When the kidneys stop working, doctors use a treatment called dialysis to remove waste products and extra water from patients with chronic kidney failure.  Other medicines are often needed to replace the kidney’s other functions, such as Epogen to stimulate the production of red blood cells and active forms of Vitamin D to help with calcium absorption.


Acute kidney disease may result from an injury, poisoning, or other temporary illness that affects the kidneys. Any injury that results in loss of blood may reduce kidney function temporarily, but once the blood supply is replenished, the kidneys usually return to normal. Other kinds of acute kidney disease in children include Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and Nephrotic Syndrome. 

Unfortunately, the conditions that lead to chronic kidney failure in children cannot be easily fixed. Often, the condition will develop so slowly that it goes unnoticed until the kidneys have been permanently damaged. Treatment may slow down the progression of some diseases, but in many cases the child will eventually need dialysis or transplantation.

Causes of chronic kidney diseases include:

  • Birth defects
  • Blocked urine flow and reflux
  • Hereditary diseases
  • Glomerular diseases
  • Systemic diseases


Treatment Options

When the kidneys lose their ability to function properly, harmful wastes build up in the body, blood pressure may rise, and the body may retain excess fluid and not make enough red blood cells. When this happens, treatment is required to replace the work of the failed kidneys.

The two types of available treatment are:


A way to remove the waste products and extra water from the blood of patients with kidney failure. The two main types of dialysis are hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis. Read detailed information about dialysis in our Health Topics section, including hemodialysis and peritoneal dialysis (PD).


The closest relation to a cure for kidney failure. However, transplantation is not a cure; it's an ongoing treatment that requires medicine intake for most of the patient's life. Read more about kidney transplantation.

Learn more about kidneys and their function, as well as causes of kidney failure in children.
Learn more about kidneys and their function, as well as causes of kidney failure in children.

Contact Us

Contact the Dialysis Unit at Cincinnati Children's. Read more

Kidney Clinic

The multidisciplinary  Kidney Clinic at Cincinnati Children’s treats a wide variety of congenital and acquired kidney problems, hypertension and metabolic disorders. Read More

Kidney Transplant Program

Learn more about our kidney transplant program, which has performed more than 500 kidney transplants with remarkable outcomes.

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