Glomerulonephritis (Glomerular Disease)

Learn about the causes, symptoms and treatment of glomerulonephritis, a type of kidney disease that can lead to serious kidney problems.

Your kidneys contain more than a million glomeruli (gluh-MER-you-lie), which are tiny filters that remove waste and fluid from your blood. If anything damages your glomeruli, which is called glomerulonephritis (gluh-mer-you-low-ne-FRY-tis), they cannot do this job as well. If not treated, glomerulonephritis can lead to serious kidney problems, including kidney failure.

What is glomerulonephritis?

Glomerulonephritis is also called glomerular disease. It is a type of kidney disease caused by damage to your glomeruli due to overactivation of your immune system. This damage means the glomeruli cannot do their job to remove waste and fluid like they should. There are two types of glomerulonephritis:

  • Acute glomerulonephritis, which happens suddenly, such as from a viral infection
  • Chronic glomerulonephritis, which develops in time from conditions like high blood pressure 

What are the symptoms of glomerulonephritis?

Glomerulonephritis often does not cause symptoms at first. If the damage to your glomeruli continues, the symptoms of glomerulonephritis include:

  • Blood in your urine (i.e., your pee), which can cause your urine to look pink, red or brown
  • Protein in your urine, which can cause your urine to be foamy or bubbly
  • High blood pressure
  • Anemia, which means you do not have enough red blood cells in your body
  • Swelling in your face, eyes, ankles, feet, legs or belly area
  • Feeling more tired than normal

If glomerulonephritis continues to get worse, it can lead to serious kidney problems, such as: 

What causes glomerulonephritis?

Many things related to your immune system can cause glomerulonephritis, such as:

  • Infections (bacterial and viral)
  • Autoimmune diseases (lupus and Goodpasture)
  • Cancers (multiple myeloma)
  • Vasculitis (Pauci-immune disease)

Sometimes, your doctor may not know what is causing your glomerulonephritis. This is called glomerular disease of unknown cause (etiology).

How will I know if I have glomerulonephritis?

doctor explaining chart to patient

To see if you have glomerulonephritis, your doctors will start by testing your blood or urine to see if your kidneys might not be working as well as they should. Then, your doctor may ask you to have more tests, such as:

  • Imaging tests of your kidneys, such as an X-ray, ultrasound or CT scan
  • A kidney biopsy, which is when your doctor or a surgeon will take a tiny piece of your kidney to look at under a microscope. A kidney biopsy is almost always needed to know if you have glomerulonephritis.

What is the treatment for glomerulonephritis?

The treatment for glomerulonephritis depends on what is causing it. For example, if your glomeruli were damaged by an infection, your treatment will likely focus on treating the infection. Certain medicines called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) can help control your blood pressure.

Glomerulonephritis can sometimes get better without treatment. For example, if you had a bacterial infection that damaged your glomeruli, they may repair in time after you take an antibiotic to treat the infection.

How can I prevent glomerulonephritis?

You may not be able to prevent glomerulonephritis. You can lower your chance of getting glomerulonephritis by:

  • Seeking treatment for active infections
  • Seeing a doctor as soon as possible if you think you may have strep throat
  • Practicing safe sex to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Seeking medical treatment if you abuse drugs, such as cocaine or heroin
  • Not taking more than the recommended dose of over-the-counter pain medicines