Uremia Treatment & Management

  • Author: A Brent Alper, Jr, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Vecihi Batuman, MD, FASN  more...
Updated: Feb 05, 2016

Approach Considerations

The ultimate treatment for uremia is dialysis. Initiation of dialysis is indicated when signs or symptoms of uremia (eg, nausea, vomiting, volume overload, hyperkalemia, severe acidosis) are present and are not treatable by other medical means. Patients with uremia must have dialysis initiated as soon as symptoms are present, regardless of the glomerular filtration rate (GFR).


Renal replacement therapy can be accomplished by hemodialysis, peritoneal dialysis, or renal transplantation. Referral to an appropriate surgeon (ie, vascular, general, transplant) is made after the modality for renal replacement therapy has been determined.

Renal transplantation is the best renal replacement therapy and results in improved survival and quality of life. Patients with renal failure and uremia should be considered for transplantation using a living, related donor; a living, nonrelated donor; or a cadaveric donor. Transplants from living, related donors are best. Consider transplantation prior to the need for dialysis because the waiting list for cadaver transplants often exceeds 2-3 years.

Consider any type of surgery carefully in patients with uremia because of the increased risk for uremic bleeding, cardiovascular events, acute kidney injury, respiratory depression, and decreased metabolism of certain drugs. Vasopressin may be considered if uremic bleeding is substantial.


Consider consultation with a nephrologist as soon as possible in the course of the patient's disease, particularly when renal function test results are only mildly abnormal. Acute hyperkalemia, volume overload, severe acidemia, or a change in mental status, which can progress to stupor or coma, requires emergent consultation with a nephrologist and, possibly, the initiation of dialysis.


Consider transferring patients to centers with dialysis capabilities if a nephrologist and/or dialysis facilities are not available to assist with management and potential interventions.


Activity for patients with uremia is self-restricted based on their level of fatigue. Early treatment of anemia with iron and erythropoietin (EPO) can improve the patient’s quality of life and energy levels even before dialysis is required.

Bleeding secondary to uremia may occur Consequently, dangerous activities may need to be restricted and potential bleeding sites may need to be assessed in the event of a fall (eg, for a subdural hematoma).

Special considerations

Pregnant patients with uremia require specialized evaluation and treatment; in this situation, seek immediate consultation with a specialist. Pregnant women should be under the care of an obstetrician who specializes in the management of high-risk pregnancies. A nephrologist should also be consulted, to help with hypertension control and the potential need for dialysis during the pregnancy. Medications contraindicated in pregnancy, such as ACE inhibitors, should be immediately discontinued.

Pediatric patients also require special consideration. A pediatric nephrologist or an adult nephrologist experienced in the care of pediatric nephrology patients should be involved in the care of children with proteinuria, renal insufficiency, or uremia or of children in whom dialysis is indicated.



For asymptomatic patients, dialysis is generally initiated when the creatinine clearance rate falls to 10 mL/min (creatinine level of 8-10 mg/dL) or less or, for diabetic patients, when the rate is 15 mL/min (creatinine level of 6 mg/dL). Early referral to a nephrologist for evaluation (when the creatinine level is >3 mg/dL) is essential for patient education and preparation for dialysis or transplantation.

Types of dialysis

Patients may decide on peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis, depending on their preference and level of motivation. Peritoneal dialysis is preferred for patients who are highly motivated, need flexibility in their dialysis schedule, and may have underlying cardiovascular disease.[20] Hemodialysis requires a functioning arterial venous dialysis access and may be accomplished at home or in a center.[21]

Regardless of whether a patient chooses peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis, the dialysis access must be discussed and placed early.

Newer methods of dialysis include daily hemodialysis and nocturnal hemodialysis, the advantages of which include improvements in volume control, cardiovascular disease, calcium-phosphate balance, dietary parameters, and quality of life.

Dialysis access placement surgery

Surgical referral is necessary for dialysis access placement after the decision regarding dialysis has been made. In general, referral to a vascular surgeon for consideration of dialysis access is initiated by the nephrologist early in the patient's course of renal failure to avoid emergent dialysis access placement.

Hemodialysis access

Arteriovenous fistulas are the dialysis access of choice for hemodialysis. Avoid arteriovenous Gore-Tex grafts if at all possible because of their poor longevity. In addition, avoid long-term use of tunneled catheters because of the increased risk of infection and poor dialysis adequacy. Avoid subclavian catheters because of their association with increased venous stenosis, thrombosis, or both.

Peritoneal dialysis access

A peritoneal dialysis catheter can be used for access in chronic ambulatory or continuous cycling peritoneal dialysis.

Placement of a Tenckhoff peritoneal dialysis catheter is carried out by either an experienced nephrologist or a surgeon. Direct visualization of the peritoneum is associated with fewer complications and better function of the catheter. Peritoneal dialysis allows patients more control over and flexibility with their dialysis treatment regimen.


Treatment of Hyperkalemia

Patients with renal failure ̶ associated hyperkalemia of 6.5 mEq/L or greater are candidates for emergent dialysis therapy, particularly if the hyperkalemia is associated with electrocardiographic changes (eg, peaked T waves, atrioventricular block, bradycardia).

Short-term temporizing measures include intravenous infusion of calcium gluconate to stabilize cardiac membranes, bicarbonate, insulin and glucose administration, or inhaled or intravenous beta agonists.

Nonemergent hyperkalemia can be treated with oral potassium binders (eg, sodium polystyrene sulfonate [Kayexalate]). Correction of acidemia may improve the potassium balance.

In addition, it is imperative to discontinue any medicine that might be contributing to the hyperkalemia, including ACE inhibitors, angiotensin-receptor blockers, beta-blockers, potassium-sparing diuretics, and NSAIDs.


Treatment of Anemia

In patients found to have anemia of CKD, it is important to check iron studies and to begin the initial treatment with iron replacement if there is evidence of iron deficiency. The serum ferritin level should be greater than 100 mcg/mL.

Due to concern about the use of erythropoietic-stimulating agents (ESAs) and increased cardiovascular mortality, major changes have been made to the recommendation for their administration. One should attempt to use the lowest ESA dose possible to reduce the need for transfusion.

Although target hemoglobin levels remain under debate, it is now recommended that patients with CKD who are not on dialysis start ESA treatment only when the hemoglobin level is less than 10 g/dL and reduce the dose or stop the ESA if the hemoglobin level exceeds 10 g/dL.

For patients on dialysis, treatment with an ESA should be administered only when the hemoglobin level is less than 10g/dL, and the dose should be reduced or interrupted if the level approaches or exceeds 11 g/dL.[22]

If the anemia is not corrected, then begin treatment with either of two subcutaneous ESA agents: recombinant human EPO, or darbepoetin, a unique molecule that stimulates erythropoiesis and has a longer half-life than erythropoietin.

Initiate iron therapy concurrently with dialysis therapy. Start with one of several intravenous iron preparations, as these are better absorbed than oral formulations. These can be administered with each dialysis treatment to load the patient with iron or once weekly to maintain iron stores.

For patients not yet on dialysis, oral iron preparations are used initially. For significant iron deficiency, intravenous iron (InFeD Injection) may be administered slowly (500 mg over 4-6 h) after the administration of a test dose (25 mg).


Treatment of Hyperparathyroidism

Early evaluation and treatment of secondary hyperparathyroidism—manifested by low calcium levels, high phosphate levels, and low levels of 1,25(OH)2 vitamin D-3—is necessary because it is one of the first manifestations of renal osteodystrophy.

There has been significant debate about goal parathyroid hormone (PTH) levels for patients with ESRD. While previous guidelines recommended a goal PTH of 150-300 pg/mL, at least one set of more recent guidelines recommends a goal PTH of 2-9 times the upper normal limit for the assay used to measure the PTH level (approximately 150-600 pg/mL).[23, 24]


Treatment of Hypocalcemia, Hyperphosphatemia, and Acidemia


Hypocalcemia can be treated with oral calcium carbonate or calcium acetate at a dose of 500 mg to 1 g orally 3 times daily, taken between meals. If 1,25(OH)2 vitamin D-3 levels are depressed, calcium levels are decreased, and parathyroid levels are elevated (>300), consider initiating oral vitamin D therapy. The dosage of calcitriol is 0.25 mcg orally once daily or 3 times weekly, depending on the levels of 1,25(OH)2 vitamin D-3 and PTH.


When the creatinine clearance falls below 25-30 mL/min, the kidney begins to lose the ability to completely excrete excess amounts of phosphorus. Thus, it is not uncommon for many patients with CKD and ESRD to become hyperphosphatemic. Initial treatment is dietary counseling and modification. If this fails, therapy consists of administration of oral phosphate binders given with meals. These can include calcium-based formulations, such as calcium carbonate or calcium acetate, or noncalcium-based formulations, such as sevelamer or lanthanum carbonate.


Acidemia should be treated in patients with a serum bicarbonate level that is consistently less than 20 mEq/dL. Oral bicarbonate solution or tablets can be used; most patients will require 0.5-1 mEq/kg of body weight of bicarbonate. Use this therapy cautiously in persons with significant fluid retention and hypertension because of the risk of worsening the fluid retention.



Dietary changes should be made only with the help of a dietitian knowledgeable in renal dietary treatment, particularly in patients who have not yet started dialysis therapy.

A low-protein diet has been advocated for persons with mild to moderate renal failure, although this matter remains controversial. Low-protein diets may alleviate some of the symptoms of uremia, such as nausea; however, data regarding the renoprotective effect of low-protein diets are conflicting.

The Moodification of Diet in Renal Disease (MDRD) study, which analyzed 585 patients with nondiabetic chronic renal disease and a mean GFR of 39 mL/min, found that even with good compliance, there appeared to be little overall benefit from a low-protein diet. In the study, patients were randomized to protein intakes of either 1.1 g/kg/day or 0.7 g/kg/day.[25]

Another caveat is that low-protein diets can cause a patient to become malnourished; malnourishment has been associated with higher mortality upon the initiation of dialysis.

On the other hand, in an analysis of studies comparing the consumption of different protein levels by nondiabetic adults with moderate to severe kidney failure, Fouque and Laville concluded that a low-protein diet can lower the rate of "renal death" by 32%.[26] (The authors defined renal death as kidney transplantation, the need to begin dialysis, or the death of a patient.)

Incorporating results from 2000 patients, including 1002 who had consumed a reduced-protein diet, Fouque and Laville found that 113 renal deaths had occurred in the low-protein group and 168 in the higher-protein group. However, the authors stated that they were unable to confirm through their analysis an optimal protein intake level for persons with renal failure.[26]

Current recommendations for a low-protein diet prior to the initiation of dialysis are 0.8-1 g of protein/kg of weight, with an additional gram of protein added for each gram of protein lost in the urine (for patients with nephrotic syndrome). Patients with advanced uremia or malnutrition are not candidates for a low-protein diet.

Patients with CKD should be on a diet low in potassium (2-3 g/day), phosphate (2 g/day), and sodium (2 g/day).


Inpatient and Outpatient Care

Inpatient care

Inpatient care is required when patients have a uremic emergency, such as hyperkalemia, hypervolemia, acidosis, pericardial effusion with symptoms, or uremic encephalopathy; these patients require emergent dialysis.

Initiate dialysis gently (2-h initial session) to avoid dialysis disequilibrium syndrome, but dialysis should continue long enough to remove potassium if it is being initiated for this reason.

Therapy should be initiated with the care and oversight of a nephrologist and may need to occur in the intensive care unit if the patient is unstable or has cardiac abnormalities secondary to acidemia or hyperkalemia.

Outpatient care

Outpatient care should be administered under the direction of the consulting nephrologist. Outpatient care may include the initiation of chronic renal replacement therapy, such as peritoneal dialysis or hemodialysis.

In/out patient medications

Inpatient medications include those that are necessary for emergent treatment of underlying disorders associated with uremia (emergent treatment of hyperkalemia, acidosis, and hypocalcemia).

Outpatient medications include EPO for anemia, iron, phosphate binders, calcitriol for PTH suppression and hypocalcemia, water-soluble vitamins (eg, folate, vitamin C), and, potentially, oral bicarbonate solution or tablets for acidosis.


Deterrence and Prevention

Avoid nephrotoxic medications such as NSAIDs, renal toxic aminoglycoside antibiotics, and other potential renal toxins.

N -acetyl-cysteine can be administered before and after radiologic imaging that requires intravenous contrast (eg, CT scan, renal angiogram, intravenous pyelogram), to avoid nephrotoxicity. However, consider an alternative method of imaging (eg, ultrasonography, MRI) in this setting to avoid AKI, particularly in patients with diabetes.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

A Brent Alper, Jr, MD, MPH Associate Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology and Hypertension, Department of Medicine, Tulane University School of Medicine

A Brent Alper, Jr, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Physicians, American Society of Hypertension, American Society of Nephrology, National Kidney Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Bessie A Young, MD, MPH Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology, University of Washington School of Medicine; Core Investigator, Seattle Epidemiologic Research and Information Center

Bessie A Young, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Diabetes Association, International Society of Nephrology, National Kidney Foundation, American Society of Nephrology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Rajesh G Shenava, MD Former Assistant Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology and Hypertension, Department of Internal Medicine, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans

Rajesh G Shenava, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Nephrology, National Kidney Foundation, Renal Physicians Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FASN Huberwald Professor of Medicine, Section of Nephrology-Hypertension, Tulane University School of Medicine; Chief, Renal Section, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System

Vecihi Batuman, MD, FASN is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Society of Hypertension, American Society of Nephrology, International Society of Nephrology, Southern Society for Clinical Investigation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Eleanor Lederer, MD Professor of Medicine, Chief, Nephrology Division, Director, Nephrology Training Program, Director, Metabolic Stone Clinic, Kidney Disease Program, University of Louisville School of Medicine; Consulting Staff, Louisville Veterans Affairs Hospital

Eleanor Lederer, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Federation for Medical Research, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, American Society for Bone and Mineral Research, American Society of Nephrology, American Society of Transplantation, International Society of Nephrology, Kentucky Medical Association, National Kidney Foundation, and Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Dept of Veterans Affairs Grant/research funds Research

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

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