Nephrotic syndrome is a group of symptoms that, together, show that your kidneys are not working as well as they should. These symptoms include:
- Too much protein in your urine
- Too little protein in your blood
- Too much cholesterol in your blood
- High levels of triglycerides in your blood
- Swelling in your legs, feet and ankles
Everyone needs protein to live. There are many kinds of protein and your body uses protein in many ways, including building bones, muscles and other tissues, and fighting infections. When your kidneys aren’t working well, they let a protein called albumin get through their filters into your urine. Albumin helps your body get rid of extra fluid. When you don’t have enough albumin in your blood, fluid can build up in your body, causing swelling in your legs, feet and ankles.
You need cholesterol to live, too. Your body makes the cholesterol you need, but cholesterol is also found in your food. When you have too much cholesterol in your blood, it can stick together and form clumps inside your veins and arteries. This makes it harder for your heart to pump your blood, and can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood. When you eat, your body uses the calories from your food for energy. If you eat more calories than your body needs, your body changes the extra calories into triglycerides. The triglycerides are stored in your body fat so they can be used as energy between meals. Having high triglyceride levels in your blood can make you more likely to have heart disease.
Who gets nephrotic syndrome?
People of all ages, genders and ethnicities can get nephrotic syndrome, but is slightly more common in men than in women. In children, it happens most often between the ages of 2 and 6. Certain things can make people more likely to get nephrotic syndrome, including:
- Diseases that affect the kidneys
- Certain medicines, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and antibiotics
- Infections, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, and malaria
What are the symptoms of nephrotic syndrome?
You may not know that you have nephrotic syndrome until you have routine blood and urine tests at a health care appointment. The results of your tests can show that you have too much protein in your urine and not enough protein in your blood. They can also show that your levels of cholesterol and triglycerides are too high. Other signs of nephrotic syndrome can include:
- Swelling in your legs, feet, ankles, and sometimes face and hands
- Weight gain
- Feeling very tired
- Foamy or bubbly urine
- Not feeling hungry
If you have any of these symptoms, or if you have blood tests that show your cholesterol and triglyceride levels are too high, talk to your health care provider (doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant) about checking your kidney health.
If you have nephrotic syndrome, your health care provider might want you to have more tests to find out what is causing the problem.
What causes nephrotic syndrome?
Nephrotic syndrome can be caused by diseases that damage the kidneys. Some of these diseases affect only the kidneys, and these are called primary causes of nephrotic syndrome. Other diseases affect the whole body, including the kidneys, and these are called secondary causes of nephrotic syndrome. Most people who have nephrotic syndrome have secondary causes.
The most common primary cause of nephrotic syndrome in adults is a disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). FSGS causes scars on the kidneys’ tiny filters called glomeruli. The most common secondary cause of nephrotic syndrome in adults is diabetes.
The most common primary cause of nephrotic syndrome in children is minimal change disease. Minimal change disease causes kidney damage that can only be seen using a very powerful microscope. The most common secondary cause of nephrotic syndrome in children is diabetes.
Learn more about focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) here.
Learn more about minimal change disease here.
What are the complications of nephrotic syndrome?
Nephrotic syndrome makes your body lose protein through your urine. Proteins do many jobs in your body. When you don’t have enough protein in your blood, your body can start to have other problems, such as blood clots and infections. Other complications that can be caused by nephrotic syndrome include:
What is the treatment for nephrotic syndrome?
There is no cure for nephrotic syndrome, but there are treatments that can help you manage symptoms and prevent more kidney damage. If your kidneys stop working, you will need dialysis or a kidney transplant to live.
Your health care provider might tell you to take certain medicines to treat the symptoms of nephrotic syndrome. Medicines to control blood pressure and cholesterol can help reduce your chances of having heart disease. Medicine to help your body get rid of extra water can also help control your blood pressure, and can reduce swelling. Medicines to prevent blood clots can help prevent heart attack and stroke.
Changing your diet may also help you manage your symptoms. Choosing fish or low-fat cuts of meat instead of higher fat options can help keep your cholesterol under control. Limiting how much salt (sodium) you take in can help prevent swelling and help keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
How can I prevent nephrotic syndrome?
The only way to prevent nephrotic syndrome is to control the diseases that can cause it. If you have a disease that can damage your kidneys, work with your health care provider to control your disease and prevent kidney damage. Also talk to your health care provider about having the tests for kidney health. If you take prescription medicines, take all of your doses and take them exactly as you are told.