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Consult this A-Z glossary on kidney health for easy-to-understand descriptions of common terms.


Acute Kidney Failure

Sometimes kidney failure occurs rapidly and this is called acute kidney failure. This may be a result of injury, infection, or other causes. For acute kidney failure, dialysis treatment may be urgently needed for a period of time, but kidney function often recovers.

Antithymocyte globulin (GAT)

A drug used to prevent or treat rejection of a transplanted kidney.

aHUS (atypical Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome)

Atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, or aHUS, is a very rare and life-threatening genetic condition. In those living with aHUS, part of the immune system (known as the complement system) is uncontrolled. As a result, the immune system is always active, attacking the body’s cells. This can lead to serious problems such as blood vessel damage, abnormal blood clotting, and damage to major organs, including the kidneys, brain and heart. Patients living with aHUS often experience severe issues. Additional information on aHUS is available at

Alport Syndrome

Alport Syndrome (AS) is an inherited disorder of the basement membranes of the kidney, eye and ear. People who inherit defective genes for the "collagen" proteins in these basement membranes may develop progressive loss of renal function, deafness and abnormalities of the eye.


A condition that is characterized by a decrease in the number of red blood cells in the blood.


Protein produced by the reaction to the invasion of the body by a foreign body (antigen).


Any substance generally foreign to the body. Provokes the production of antibodies (e.g., a transplanted kidney, viruses and microbes are antigens).

Automated or continuous cycler peritoneal dialysis (APD, CCPD)

Form of continuous peritoneal dialysis in which a machine called an automatic cycler performs regular exchanges throughout the night.

Autosomal dominant PKD (ADPKD)

Hereditary kidney disease. Characterized by the formation of fluid-filled cysts in the kidneys and other organs.






Mineral that is important for bone growth and body function.


See Kidney Cancer.


Hollow tube used to transport fluids to or from the body.


A type of fat found in most body tissues.

Chronic Kidney Disease

Slow and progressive deterioration of renal function, usually irreversible. This condition, called stage 1 or 2, may be mild and requires only medical monitoring. If deterioration accelerates, monitoring should be tighter to avoid the development of more complex symptoms.

Cytotoxic Antibody

Substance in the blood (antibody) designed to kill the antigen; usually means that the body would reject a transplanted kidney.

Compatibility of blood and tissue

In any type of transplant, the blood group of the donor must be compatible with the blood group of the recipient. If the donor’s blood group is compatible with the recipient’s, a second blood test called tissue typing is done. This test will determine if the donor and recipient have the genetic similarities to ensure the greatest chance of a successful transplant.

Conservative Care

See Non-dialysis supportive care.

Continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD)

Form of peritoneal dialysis in which dialysis fluid is exchanged at regular intervals throughout the 24-hour day.


Waste product of muscle activity.

Cross Match

Blood test to measure the compatibility of a blood transfusion, or of a transplant donor and recipient.


Medication used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.


A genetic disease caused by the body's inability to process cystine, which is a by-product of protein metabolism. This leads to a buildup of cystine in the body's organs and tissues and ultimately to severe organ damage. There are three forms of the illness: infantile, juvenile, and adult cystinosis. The infantile form of the disease is the most common and the most severe, and generally leads to kidney failure, hypothyroidism, muscle weakness, rickets, growth retardation, and vision problems.


Daily Eating Plan

Plan worked out by a dietitian and a kidney patient which determines the types and amounts of foods which should be eaten daily.

Deceased donor transplant

Type of kidney transplant in which a kidney is donated from someone who has died suddenly. Also called non-living donor transplant or cadaveric transplant.


Disease of the pancreas in which the production of insulin is decreased or absent (Type 1) or in which the body does not use the insulin that the pancreas makes (Type 2). People with diabetes suffer from damage to the small blood vessels of the body. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease in Canada. Kidney disease from diabetes usually progresses slowly, over a period of 10 -15 years. Damage occurs to the glomeruli, the blood-filtering units of the kidneys. When these blood filtering units are injured, the kidneys cannot clean the blood.


From Greek, meaning “to separate or dissolve.” A treatment for kidney failure which removes wastes and water from the blood.

Dialysis fluid

Special fluid used in dialysis into which wastes are passed. Also called dialysate, or bath.


The part of an artificial kidney machine which acts like a filter to remove wastes from the blood.

Drug- and medication-induced kidney problems

The use of illegal drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, can cause kidney damage. Some over-the-counter medications may damage the kidneys if used in large doses over a long period of time. At times, even prescription medications may cause kidney dysfunction. Sometimes the damage can be repaired but sometimes it cannot. However, many prescription medications can be safe for people with kidney disease as long as the doctor makes special changes to the dosage (amount). You should always ask your doctor or pharmacist about possible side effects of prescription medications for people with kidney disease.

Dry weight

The body weight achieved when extra fluid is removed during dialysis. Sometimes called target weight.



Swelling of the body tissues (usually ankles or lungs) due to salt and water retention.

eGFR (Estimated glomerular filtration rate)

Estimated glomerular filtration rate (see GFR). The eGFR is estimated by a mathematical calculation using blood tests and other information in order to get an approximate measure of the amount of kidney function present.

End-stage renal disease (ESRD)

Stage 5 in chronic kidney disease when treatment, such as dialysis or transplantation, becomes necessary. “End-stage” refers to the end of kidney function. Also called end-stage renal failure or end-stage kidney failure.

Energy foods

Foods, particularly sugars and fats, which provide the body with energy. Usually measured in calories.

Erythropoietin (EPO)

Hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. The hormone is naturally produced by the kidneys and is also available as a family of injectable medications.


One complete cycle of peritoneal dialysis, consisting of inflow, equilibration (also called dwell), and outflow.


Fabry Disease

Fabry disease is a rare genetic disease due to the deficiency or absence of an enzyme that breaks down globotriaosylceramide, a fatty material that can accumulate in blood and blood vessel walls, leading to decreased blood flow. Kidney complications due to Fabry disease are common and serious. End-Stage Renal Disease typically occurs in the third decade of life and is a leading cause of death.

Fibromuscular Dysplasia (FMD)

Fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD) is a condition characterized by abnormal cell growth within the arterial wall. As a result, areas of narrowing (stenosis), enlargement (aneurysms), or tears (dissections) may occur and cause a decrease in blood flow to the organs. FMD is most commonly found in the arteries that supply the kidneys with blood but can also affect the arteries supplying blood to the brain, abdomen, arms and legs. The cause of FMD is unknown and many people with FMD do not have any symptoms or signs on physical examination.


Commonly used method of providing access to the bloodstream in which a vein and an artery in the arm are joined together. Also called arteriovenous fistula.


Medication used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney. See Tacrolimus.


GFR (Glomerular filtration rate)

Glomerular Filtration Rate is an accurate measure of kidney function which usually requires specialized tests. Doctors can approximate this measure. The approximated result is called “estimated GFR”. See eGFR.


Glomerulonephritis (nephritis) means inflammation of the kidney glomerulus, or filters. The inflammation may be so severe that the filters are destroyed, resulting in kidney failure. Glomerulonephritis is caused by a problem in the body’s immune system whereby it mistakenly attacks the kidneys’ filters. There are many types of glomerulonephritis. One example is a condition known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). As a group of diseases, glomerulonephritis is the third most common cause of kidney failure in Canada.


Microscopic filter in the kidney which separates excess water and wastes from the blood. More than one glomerulus are called glomeruli.


A vein and an artery in the arm are joined with a piece of special tubing. The graft provides access to the bloodstream for dialysis. Also called arterio-venous graft.



Treatment for kidney failure in which the blood passes through a dialyzer to remove wastes and water.


The protein in red blood cells which carries oxygen.

Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)

Commonly referred to as "Hamburger Disease", HUS is more commonly seen in the warmer months of the year, following a gastrointestinal illness caused primarily by a particular strain of bacteria known as E. coli 0157:H7. This bacteria has been associated with consumption of undercooked ground beef (hence, "Hamburger Disease"), unpasteurized milk and cheese, cold cuts, hot dogs, chicken, pork, lamb, and contaminated water sources. People of all age groups are at risk however young children and the elderly are at greater risk for more severe symptoms. This infection is highly contagious and poses a substantial threat to Canadian children as one of the leading causes of both acute and chronic kidney failure.


Substance often added to blood during hemodialysis to prevent it from clotting in the dialyzer.

High blood pressure (hypertension)

Blood pressure (BP) measures the force of the blood on the walls of the blood vessels. Blood pressure is measured as two numbers: the systolic blood pressure (when the heart contracts), and the diastolic blood pressure (when the heart relaxes). A blood pressure reading of 130/85 means a systolic BP of 130 and a diastolic BP of 85. These two numbers show how hard the heart is working. The harder it is for the blood to flow through the vessels, the higher the blood pressure will be. High blood pressure is one of the major risk factors of kidney disease and the second leading cause of end-stage renal disease in Canada and it accounts for about 12 per cent of the causes of kidney failure in new patients.

Home nocturnal hemodialysis

Method of carrying out hemodialysis at home while you sleep.


Chemical messenger which regulates bodily functions such as blood pressure and the making of red blood cells.


See High blood pressure.


Immune system

System which protects the body from foreign materials such as viruses and bacteria.


Medications which suppress (decrease) the body’s immune system and help prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.


Hormone produced by the pancreas which regulates the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood.


Jugular vein

Blood vessel located in the side of the neck sometimes used to provide access for hemodialysis.



One of two organs located at the back of the abdominal cavity on each side of the spinal column.

Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer is formed in the nephrons – the tiny tubes of the kidney that filter blood and produce urine. Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is the most common form of kidney cancer in adults, and is considered advanced when the cancer has metastasized, or spread, beyond the primary cancer site. Metastatic cancer is often found in nearby lymph nodes and may spread to other organs or bones. Known risk factors for kidney cancer include smoking, hypertension, obesity, and occupational exposure to some chemicals.

Kidney failure

Progressive deterioration in kidney function. Also called end-stage kidney disease.

Kidney Paired Donation (KPD) Program

The Kidney Paired Donation (KPD) program, previously referred to as the Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE) Registry, is an innovative transplant possibility for patients across Canada with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD). The KPD program facilitates living kidney donations between patients with a willing but incompatible donor and another pair in the same situation. It is a partnership between Canadian Blood Services and transplant programs across the country and was launched as a three-province pilot in January 2009. Since then, all other provinces have gradually joined the registry.


Live donor transplant

Type of kidney transplant in which a kidney is donated by a live donor, often a blood relative. Live donor transplants tend to last longer than transplants from deceased donors. This is usually because a live donor kidney is healthier and there is often a better genetic match. In addition, the transplant can be planned at the best time for both the donor and the recipient.

Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE)

Renamed; see Kidney Paired Donation (KPD) Program above. The Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE) is the first Canada-wide organ donation registry. The LDPE registry facilitates living kidney donations between patients with a willing but incompatible donor and another pair in the same situation. It is a partnership between Canadian Blood Services and transplant programs across the country and was launched as a three-province pilot in January 2009. Since then, all other provinces have gradually joined the registry.


See Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).


White blood cells which are part of the immune system and which are involved in transplant rejection.


Medullary Sponge Kidney (MSK)

A rare congenital disorder that affects the tubules of the kidney through which urine normally flows. In MSK, tiny sacs called cysts form in the innermost part of the kidney, keeping urine from flowing freely and creating a sponge-like appearance. MSK may cause blood in urine, kidney stones, and urinary tract infections (UTIs). Symptoms may begin at any age but usually develop during adolescence or between the ages of 30 and 50 years. The condition affects slightly more women than men.

Muromonab CD-3

Medication used to treat or prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.

Mycophenolate mofetil

Medication used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.



See Glomerulonephritis.


The functional unit of the kidney which acts to maintain the body’s chemical balance. Consists of a filter (glomerulus) attached to a tubule.

Non-dialysis supportive care

A treatment option that aims to provide physical and emotional comfort care, instead of extended life. Also known as conservative care.

Non-living transplant

See Deceased donor transplant.





Thin membrane which encloses the peritoneal cavity and surrounds the abdominal organs.

Peritoneal cavity

Abdominal cavity (tummy) which contains the intestines and other internal organs.

Peritoneal dialysis

Treatment for kidney failure in which dialysis fluid is introduced into the peritoneal cavity to remove wastes and water from the blood.

Phosphate binder

Medication which binds with some of the phosphate when the food is in the stomach and intestine causing the phosphate to be passed in the stool instead of letting it get into the blood.

Phosphorus (phosphate)

Mineral in many nutritious foods. In the body fluids it is regulated by the kidneys. At normal levels, keeps bones strong and healthy. At high levels, causes itching, painful joints, and parathyroid and bone disease.


Cells in the blood which are involved in blood clotting.

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is a genetic disorder involving the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys. PKD cysts can slowly replace much of the mass of the kidneys, reducing function and leading to kidney failure.


Mineral in the body fluids regulated by the kidneys. At normal levels, helps nerves and muscles work well. At high levels, may stop the heart.


Medication like cortisone, used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney. A relative of prednisone may be used to treat rejection in higher doses given intravenously.


Substance obtained from food which builds, repairs and maintains body tissues. High sources of protein are mainly from animal foods.




Red blood cells

Cells in the blood which carry oxygen to the body tissues.

Reflux nephropathy

Condition in which the kidneys are scarred because of an abnormal flow of urine from the bladder backwards into the kidney. Reflux nephropathy usually affects children born with an abnormal junction of the ureter and bladder. If not diagnosed early, or if the kidneys are badly scarred, reflux nephropathy can cause progressive kidney disease or lead to end-stage renal failure.


Process in which the body recognizes that a transplanted organ is not its own and mobilizes the immune system to fight against it. Rejection can occur at any time after the transplant but is more common in the early months. Different medications are used to prevent rejection, either alone, or in combination. These medications work by blocking the activity of the immune system.

Renal artery

Major vessel which delivers blood to the kidneys for cleaning.

Renal medulla

The innermost part of the kidney, composed chiefly of collecting tubules.

Renal replacement therapy (RRT)

A treatment, such as dialysis or transplantation, which attempts to replace the normal functioning of the kidneys.

Renal pelvis

Funnel-like structure which collects urine from the kidney and delivers it to the ureter.

Renal vein

Major vessel which returns freshly cleaned blood from the kidneys to the circulatory system.


Hormone produced by the kidneys which regulates blood pressure.


Serum creatinine level

Blood test to measure the level of creatinine, which is a waste product of muscle activity. As kidney function decreases, the serum creatinine level increases.


Medication used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.


Mineral in the body fluids which increases thirst and is regulated by the kidneys. Affects the level of water retained in the body tissues.


Medication which reduces inflammation and acts as an immunosuppressant. Prednisone is an example. Not to be confused with anabolic steroids which are a medication sometimes abused by some athletes.

Subclavian vein

Blood vessel located underneath the collarbone sometimes used to provide access for hemodialysis.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)

Disease of the immune system which may affect a number of organs, including the kidneys.


Tacrolimus (FK506)

Medication used to prevent rejection of a transplanted kidney.

Target weight

The body weight which is “targeted” after extra fluid is removed during dialysis. When all of the body’s extra fluid is gone, this is the dry weight.

Tissue typing

Laboratory test to determine the genetic makeup of a person. Used to ensure compatibility of a kidney before transplant. See Compatibility of blood and tissue.


Tube in the nephron which collects and processes urine from the glomerulus before the urine passes into the renal pelvis.



Process in which blood entering a dialyzer is placed under pressure to remove excess water.


Waste product from the breakdown of protein.


From Greek, meaning “urine in the blood”. Uremia develops as the kidneys fail and are unable to remove wastes from the body. As the kidneys continue to fail, more waste products build up in the blood. Symptoms may become very severe, including shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, itchy skin and headaches. Serious problems may occur because of high blood pressure, anemia or the increase in acid and potassium levels in the blood. Before severe uremia develops, treatments such as dialysis and transplantation are usually needed.


Tube which takes urine from the renal pelvis and delivers it into the bladder.


Tube from the bladder which takes urine out of the body.


Test to measure the presence of protein and other substances in the urine.

Urinary tract obstruction

Kidneys may be damaged if there is an obstruction of the urinary outflow. Obstructions may occur in the ureters or at the outlet of the bladder. Birth defects can cause narrow ureters that could lead to kidney damage in children. In adults, an enlarged prostate gland, kidney stones and tumors can cause obstructions.



Blood vessel returning blood to the heart.


White blood cells

Cells in the blood which fight infection and are active in the process of kidney rejection.