Glomerulonephritis might be a health condition that most people would imagine they've never heard about in their lives before, but it's a condition that's a lot more commonplace than people might have imagined - and many glomerulonephritis cases are diagnosed every year for a variety of different reasons including a family history of the condition.
The key to spotting the signs and symptoms of a condition like glomerulonephritis is being more familiar with the condition - and at least familiar enough to be able to recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone else if you were to encounter them.
Glomerulonephritis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
Here's what you should know about glomerulonephritis causes, symptoms, treatment, and how it can affect you or your family's health.
It's Not a Singular Condition
Glomerulonephritis doesn't apply to just one singular medical condition. Instead, the term is instead a blanket term that gets used to refer to several different medical conditions that all fall under the same umbrella - and all share the same causes and symptoms, more or less.
While there are several different conditions that stand under the Glomerulonephritis name, all of these conditions share a common cause and effect.
What Is Glomerulonephritis?
Glomerulonephritis is a condition that affects the blood vessels and connecting tubes that lead to and from the kidneys. This condition is usually caused by your immune system attacking healthy body tissue. Other terms you might hear used are nephritis and nephrotic syndrome. When there is inflammation of the tiny filters in the kidney, the kidneys slowly lose their ability to remove waste and fluid from the blood to produce urine.
Long Term Effects
The condition is most often a chronic one that can last for an entire lifetime with instances of flare-ups that are triggered by lifestyle and dietary factors. While chronic glomerulonephritis is the third leading cause of chronic kidney disease (CKD), the condition can be effectively managed with a collaborative effort between the patient and the medical professional.
Most often, the symptoms involve severe inflammation of the blood vessels, tubes, and eventually kidneys - but at the same time, there are a handful of diagnosed cases who experience a range of other symptoms tied to glomerulonephritis, but no related inflammation.
What is Glomerulonephritis Caused By?
Many conditions can cause glomerulonephritis. Sometimes the disease runs in families and sometimes the cause is unknown. Conditions that can lead to inflammation of the kidneys' glomeruli include:
Glomerulonephritis may develop a week or two after recovery from a strep throat infection or, rarely, a skin infection (impetigo). To fight the infection, your body produces extra antibodies that can eventually settle in the glomeruli, causing inflammation. Children are more likely to develop post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis than adults, and they're also more likely to recover quickly.
Bacteria occasionally can spread through your bloodstream and lodge in your heart, causing an infection of one or more of your heart valves. You're at greater risk of this condition if you have a heart defect, such as a damaged or artificial heart valve. Bacterial endocarditis is associated with glomerular disease, but the connection between the two is unclear.
Viral infections, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, can trigger glomerulonephritis.
A chronic inflammatory disease, lupus can affect many parts of your body, including your skin, joints, kidneys, blood cells, heart, and lungs.
A rare immunological lung disorder that can mimic pneumonia, Goodpasture's syndrome causes bleeding in your lungs as well as glomerulonephritis.
Characterized by recurrent episodes of blood in the urine, this primary glomerular disease results from deposits of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in the glomeruli. IgA nephropathy can progress for years with no noticeable symptoms.
This form of vasculitis affects small and medium blood vessels in many parts of your body, such as your heart, kidneys, and intestines.
Granulomatosis with polyangiitis
This form of vasculitis, formerly known as Wegener's granulomatosis, affects small and medium blood vessels in your lungs, upper airways, and kidneys.
What Are Glomerulonephritis Symptoms?
The symptoms of Glomerulonephritis are vast and not everyone might experience the same range of symptoms at the same time.
Signs and symptoms of glomerulonephritis depend on whether you have an acute or chronic form and the cause. Your first indication that something is wrong might come from symptoms or from the results of a routine urinalysis.
Glomerulonephritis signs and symptoms include:
- Pink or cola-colored urine from red blood cells in your urine (hematuria)
- Foamy urine due to excess protein (proteinuria)
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Fluid retention (edema) with swelling evident in your face, hands, feet, and abdomen
Glomerulonephritis often comes to light when a routine urinalysis is abnormal. Tests to assess your kidney function and make a diagnosis of glomerulonephritis include:
A urinalysis might show red blood cells and red cell casts in your urine, an indicator of possible damage to the glomeruli. Urinalysis results might also show white blood cells, a common indicator of infection or inflammation, and increased protein, which can indicate nephron damage. Other indicators, such as increased blood levels of creatinine or urea, are red flags.
These can provide information about kidney damage and impairment of the glomeruli by measuring levels of waste products, such as creatinine and blood urea nitrogen.
If your doctor detects evidence of damage, he or she may recommend diagnostic studies that allow visualization of your kidneys, such as a kidney X-ray, an ultrasound examination, or a CT scan.
This procedure involves using a special needle to extract small pieces of kidney tissue for microscopic examination to help determine the cause of the inflammation. A kidney biopsy is almost always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of glomerulonephritis.
Are there different types of glomerulonephritis?
Yes. There are two types of glomerulonephritis—acute and chronic.
The acute form develops suddenly. You may get it after an infection in your throat or on your skin. Sometimes, you may get better on your own. Other times, unless the right treatment is started quickly, glomerulonephritis can lead to kidney failure.
Early symptoms of acute glomerulonephritis:
- puffiness of your face in the morning
- blood in your urine (or brown urine)
- urinating less than usual.
You may be short of breath and cough because of extra fluid in your lungs. You may also have high blood pressure. If you have one or all of these symptoms, be sure to see your doctor right away.
The chronic form may develop silently (without symptoms) over several years. It often leads to complete kidney failure.
Early signs and symptoms of chronic glomerulonephritis may include:
- Blood or protein in the urine (hematuria, proteinuria)
- High blood pressure
- Swelling of your ankles or face (edema)
- Frequent nighttime urination
- Very bubbly or foamy urine
Additional Source: Acute and Chronic Glomerulopathies
If you suspect that you have glomerulonephritis, the first thing that you should do is make an appointment with your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Everything else is secondary!
Your doctor should be able to put you on the right course of treatment (including medication and lifestyle or dietary changes) from there, but first, diagnosis is one of the most important things.
Some cases of acute glomerulonephritis, especially those that follow a strep infection, might improve on their own and require no treatment. If there's an underlying cause, such as high blood pressure, an infection, or an autoimmune disease, treatment will be directed to the underlying cause.
If you suffer from high blood pressure, you may need to take medicine to lower your blood pressure and reduce the amount of protein that leaks into your urine, for example:
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB)
In general, the goal of treatment is to protect your kidneys from further damage.
Can glomerulonephritis be prevented?
The best way to prevent viral infections such as HIV and hepatitis which can lead to glomerulonephritis is by practicing good hygiene, having safe sex, and avoiding IV drugs. If you have chronic glomerulonephritis, then controlling your blood pressure is also important. This will help to slow down kidney damage.
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