March is National Kidney Awareness Month and, while most are aware that they have kidneys, how many know what they do and how they affect a person's overall health?

“One of its functions is clearance of the toxins, maintain blood pressure, maintaining electrolyte base balance, and maintaining volume status in the body,” said Dr. Eram Shahira, who specializes in nephrology and kidney care at Sanford Health in Fargo.

The kidney’s main job is to filter blood, kind of like a coffee filter would filter coffee grounds.

“So, similarly, the kidneys are filtering the blood,” Shahira said. When a coffee filter does its job correctly a full cup of coffee is produced. When the kidneys do their job the blood is clean after it has been filtered.

“If you don’t filter well all the toxins start to build up in the body over time,” Shahira said. Diseased kidneys lose their function and stop doing their job of filtering blood.

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There are risk factors that can lead to kidney disease, Shahira said. Diabetes, high blood pressure levels, smoking and obesity can lead to developing kidney disease, as well as heavy use of over the counter medications such as Aleve, ibuprofen and Motrin, Shahira said.

There are five stages of kidney disease: “Stage 1 is very early disease where you’ve lost only 10-20%” of kidney function, Shahira said. “Stage 5 is where you’ve lost 80-85% of the kidney function.”

Between stages 1 and 5, the goal is preventing further function loss. However, if the disease does progress to stage 5 dialysis or transplant becomes necessary.

“Dialysis is an artificial means of cleaning the blood when your kidneys are not doing it job,” Shahira said. Patients are hooked up to dialysis machines through access in either the neck or arm. Their blood is taken out of their body and filtered through a dialysis membrane before returning to the body.

The other option is a transplant but “it is very hard to find an organ donor,” Shahira said. It can take up to six years to find a donor and a match. “Our dialysis patients are very sick and by the time that they get to that point where they can get a donor they actually die.”

Living donors are an option when family or friends are willing to donate one of their kidneys, however, matching can still be an issue. “It was a very big issue to match kidneys but now we are doing something called kidney pair exchange program,” Shahira said.

The exchange program pools together patients, who have a donor but not a match, and living donors to find matches.

In 1970 the number of patients with kidney disease was 10,000 and in 2015 the number had increased to 703,243, Shahira said. The cause of the increase is partly due to being able to identify kidney disease in earlier stages and people living longer and partly due to lack of prevention.

Kidney disease can be prevented, “I would encourage communities to check on their friends and family who are diabetic, have high blood pressure, or are taking medications that would hurt their kidneys,” Shahira said. “To educate ourselves and encourage each other so they do not end up with advanced chronic kidney disease, so we can prevent dialysis and transplant.”

Symptoms of kidney failure

From the American Kidney Fund:

  • Itching
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Swelling in your feet and ankles
  • Too much urine or not enough urine
  • Trouble catching your breath
  • Trouble sleeping

Kidney functions

Important functions of the kidney, according to Dr. Eram Shahira:

  • Clear toxins from the body

  • Helps make blood

  • Maintain acid bass balance

  • Maintain bone strength