Diseases that affect the kidneys often differ in children than in adults.

Causes of kidney disease in children include:

Birth defects

Birth defects are abnormal physical or biological conditions that happen to a baby while growing in its mother’s womb. Birth defects can be a result of an environmental issue or a genetic disease. Common birth defects related to the kidneys include:

  • Being born with one kidney instead of two (renal agenesis, or solitary kidney)
  • Being born with two kidneys, but one that does not work (renal dysplasia)
  • Being born with a kidney that is not in the right location (ectopic kidney)

Most children born with a kidney birth defect will not have major health problems. Children born with a single kidney or one non-working kidney may have a higher chance of getting kidney disease later in life. If a child is born with a kidney birth defect, talk to the child’s pediatrician about how often they should be checked for signs of kidney disease.

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Genetic diseases

A genetic disease, also known as a hereditary disease, is passed down through the genes of a parent to their child. Genetic diseases cannot be prevented, but there are medicines that can help to treat and manage certain ones.

Alport syndrome

Alport syndrome is caused by mutations in three genes that determine the way certain parts of the body are shaped. As a result, parts of the kidneys, ears, and eyes do not grow correctly. Alport syndrome always causes kidney disease and can cause hearing loss and eye problems. Symptoms can begin at many different ages, from early childhood to late adolescence or even adulthood. Learn more about Alport syndrome.

Autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD)

There are two types of polycystic kidney disease: autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD), and autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). Compared to autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) is much less common and symptoms begin earlier in life.

Autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) causes cysts to form in the kidneys and the liver. The cysts make the kidneys much larger than they should be and therefore damage the kidneys’ tissue. Symptoms of the disease can begin before birth and can cause life-threatening problems in infants. Learn more about autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD).

Nephropathic cystinosis

Cystinosis is a genetic disease that causes cystine, a building block of protein, to build up in the body’s cells. This can cause damage to the body’s organs including the kidneys, eyes, pancreas, liver, and brain. People with cystinosis must inherit a mutated gene from each parent to develop the condition.

Nephropathic cystinosis is the most common type of cystinosis, and symptoms begin in early childhood. According to research on the disease, 95% cases of cystinosis are nephrotic cystinosis. According to the Cystinosis Research Network, at any given time, there are 500 to 600 children in the United States with cystinosis, and about 15-20 new patients every year.  The two main symptoms of nephropathic cystinosis are damage to the kidneys and eyes, which can lead to kidney failure or blindness if left untreated.

There is not a cure for nephropathic cystinosis, but there are medicines that can slow its progression by lowering the amount of cystine that builds up in the body. These treatments can allow patients with the condition to live longer lives with fewer health complications. Learn more about cystinosis.

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Infection

An infection happens when an abnormal type or too many bacteria or virus enters the body. Certain infections commonly harm the kidneys. The following kidney conditions are related to infections:

Glomerulonephritis

Glomerulonephritis, sometimes called glomerular disease, involves damage to the tiny filters in the kidneys, called glomeruli. Glomerulonephritis can happen suddenly or slowly over time. Some causes of glomerulonephritis are streptococci bacteria (the bacteria that causes strep throat), bacterial infection of the heart, and viral infections like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Learn more about glomerulonephritis.

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS)

Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) in children is usually caused by infection with the E. coli bacteria, and less commonly is caused by other bacteria and viruses. HUS destroys red blood cells, which block the kidneys’ filters, leading to kidney damage and failure.

HUS caused by E. coli is the leading cause of acute or sudden kidney failure in children. The National Institute of Health (NIH) estimates about 2 out of every 100,000 children gets HUS. Learn more about HUS.

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Nephrotic syndrome

Nephrotic syndrome is a group of symptoms that, together, show that the kidneys are not working as well as they should. Nephrotic syndrome in children usually happens between ages two and six. The most common causes of nephrotic syndrome in children are diabetes and minimal change disease. Learn more about nephrotic syndrome.

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Systemic diseases

A systemic disease is one that affects the whole body as opposed to a part of the body or one organ. Diabetes and lupus are examples of systemic diseases that can cause kidney disease.

Diabetes

Although diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease in adults, it is not a common cause of kidney disease in children. Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can happen in children.

Over time, uncontrolled diabetes can lead to kidney disease. When a person has diabetes, their body has trouble making or using insulin. Insulin regulates the body’s blood sugar, keeping it at a healthy level. If diabetes is not kept under control, too much sugar builds up in the blood, causing damage to the kidneys’ tiny filters. Learn more about diabetes here.

The signs and symptoms of diabetes are similar for type 1 and type 2. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you notice any of the symptoms of diabetes.

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Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack healthy cells in the body leading to pain, inflammation (swelling), and damage to all parts of the body including the kidneys.

Childhood lupus is referred to as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). According to the Arthritis Foundation, SLE affects 5,000 to 10,000 children in the United States. For all age groups, lupus happens more often in girls than in boys. The signs and symptoms of lupus can begin in childhood or later in life. Learn more about lupus nephritis.

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Trauma

Sometimes trauma, a severe physical injury, such as dehydration, bleeding, or surgery, can damage the kidneys. Trauma can cause a severe drop in blood pressure, meaning the kidneys receive less blood. This can injure the kidneys and cause them to suddenly stop working.

It is important to treat trauma as soon as it happens to avoid permanent kidney damage. Sometimes dialysis is used temporarily to help keep the blood flow through the kidneys stable until blood pressure returns to normal. Sometimes trauma that happens inside the body cannot be seen. If your child has suffered a severe physical force or impact to the body or head, take them to the doctor right away.

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Urine blockage and reflux

The urinary system, which includes the kidneys, bladder, and ureters, empties wastes out of the body through urine. Urine travels from the kidneys through two thin tubes called the ureters into the bladder and then out of the body.

A blockage in the urinary system can happen in children, or even in babies still developing in the womb. This can cause bladder, kidney, and lung problems. The doctor can use test called an ultrasound to see blockages in the system. Sometimes a blockage will go away on its own and other times surgery is needed.

Urine reflux happens when the valve, or doorway, between the bladder and a ureter is not working and does not completely shut. In certain cases, antibiotics may help solve urine reflux, but sometimes surgery is needed.

Blockages and reflux in the urinary system can make urine build up in the kidneys and cause permanent kidney damage or kidney failure.

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