Nephrotic Syndrome

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Nephrotic Syndrome

Topic Overview

Picture of the urinary system

What is nephrotic syndrome?

Nephrotic syndrome is a sign that your kidneys aren't working right. As a result, you have:

  • High levels of protein in your urine.
  • Low levels of protein in your blood.
  • High levels of cholesterol in your blood.

Nephrotic syndrome isn't a disease. It's a warning that something is damaging your kidneys. Without treatment, that problem could cause kidney failure. So it's important to get treatment right away.

Nephrotic syndrome can occur at any age. But it is most common in children between the ages of 18 months and 8 years.

What causes nephrotic syndrome?

The kidneys have tiny blood vessels called glomeruli that filter waste and extra water from the blood. Healthy kidneys keep the right amount of protein in the blood. Protein helps move water from the tissues into the blood. When the tiny filters are damaged, too much protein slips from the blood into the urine. As a result, fluid builds up in the tissues and causes swelling.

Nephrotic syndrome is often caused by:

  • A type of kidney disease called minimal change disease (or nil disease). This is the main cause of nephrotic syndrome in children. Doctors don't know what causes minimal change disease.
  • Diabetes. This is the most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in adults.

Many other things can cause the blood vessel damage that leads to nephrotic syndrome, including:

Sometimes doctors don't know what causes it.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling around the eyes or in the feet or ankles. This is the most common symptom.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight gain (from fluid buildup).
  • Shortness of breath.

How is nephrotic syndrome diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose nephrotic syndrome using:

  • Urine tests to measure the amount of protein in your urine.
  • Blood tests to measure the amount of protein, cholesterol, and sugar (glucose) in your blood.
  • Ultrasound to look at the kidneys. This test can rule out other causes of your symptoms.

A kidney biopsy may be done to find the cause. You may also have other tests to identify what is causing nephrotic syndrome.

How is it treated?

Treatment aims to reverse, slow, or prevent further kidney damage. The treatment you need depends on your age and what health problem is causing nephrotic syndrome.

Some people may not need medicine if they are at low risk for problems or are getting better on their own. Others may need medicines that decrease the body's immune system response. These include:

  • Corticosteroids, such as prednisone.
  • Other immune-suppressing medicines, such as cyclosporine and cyclophosphamide.

Nephrotic syndrome can lead to other problems that may need treatment, including high blood pressure, blood clots, and high cholesterol or triglycerides. You might need medicines to treat these problems, such as:

  • Blood pressure medicines to lower blood pressure and help protect the kidneys.
  • Water pills (diuretics). These help reduce fluid buildup in the body and lower blood pressure.
  • Blood thinners, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or heparin, if you have blood clots.
  • Statins to reduce high cholesterol.

Young children who get treatment usually get better and have no lasting problems. Often treatment is not as successful in older children and adults. If your symptoms are severe or they come back, you may need treatment for months to years, or even for the rest of your life.

If treatment doesn't stop the kidney damage, you may get chronic kidney disease.

What can you do at home for nephrotic syndrome?

If you have nephrotic syndrome, it's important to:

  • See your doctor regularly to have your kidney function checked. Children usually need to see a doctor more often than adults do.
  • Take all your medicines as prescribed, even after you start to feel better. Talk to your doctor if you have side effects.
  • Make sure your doctor knows about all the prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal medicines you take.
  • Get a flu shot each year. And get any other immunizations your doctor recommends.

There are also things you can do to reduce your symptoms and prevent other health problems.

  • Cut down on salt. This can reduce the amount of water your body retains.
  • Choose foods low in saturated fat. This can reduce your cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Weigh yourself each day. Weight gain may be a sign that you are retaining fluid. Call your doctor if you are gaining weight or have other problems, such as trouble breathing.
  • Follow your doctor's advice for the amount of protein you need in your diet.
  • Be gentle with your skin. Nephrotic syndrome may cause your skin to be dry and fragile. It also increases your risk of skin infections.

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Other Places To Get Help


American Kidney Fund
6110 Executive Boulevard
Suite 1010
Rockville, MD  20852
Phone: 1-800-638-8299
1-866-300-2900 helpline
Web Address:

The American Kidney Fund is a national voluntary health organization dedicated to improving the daily lives of people who have chronic kidney disease. Its goal as a patient aid program is to relieve the financial burden associated with chronic kidney failure. Also, the organization's information service provides information about how to prevent and treat kidney disease and about the great need for organ donors.

National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse
3 Information Way
Bethesda, MD  20892-3580
Phone: 1-800-891-5390
TDD: 1-866-569-1162
Fax: (703) 738-4929
Web Address:

The National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NKUDIC) provides information about diseases of the kidneys and urologic system to people with these problems and to their families, to health professionals, and to the public. NKUDIC answers inquiries; develops, reviews, and distributes publications; and works closely with professional and patient groups and government agencies to coordinate resources about kidney and urologic diseases.

NKUDIC, a federal agency, is a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). NIDDK is part of the National Institutes of Health under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

National Kidney Foundation
30 East 33rd Street
New York, NY  10016
Phone: 1-800-622-9010
Phone: (212) 889-2210
Fax: (212) 689-9261
Web Address:

The National Kidney Foundation works to prevent kidney and urinary tract diseases and help people affected by these conditions. Its website has a lot of information about adult and child conditions. The site has interactive tools, donor information, recipes for kidney disease patients, and message boards for many kidney topics. Free materials, such as brochures and newsletters, are available.

Related Information


Other Works Consulted

  • Kodner C (2009). Nephrotic syndrome in adults: Diagnosis and management. American Family Physician, 80(10): 1129–1134.
  • Lewis JB, Neilson EG (2008). Glomerular diseases. In AS Fauci et al., eds., Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 17th ed., vol. 2, pp. 1782–1797. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Praga M et al (2011). Primary glomerular diseases In ET Bope et al., eds., Conn's Current Therapy 2011, pp. 714–719. Philadelphia: Saunders.
  • Vincenti FG, Amend WJC (2008). Nephrotic syndrome section of Diagnosis of medical renal diseases. In EA Tanagho, JW McAninch, eds., Smith's General Urology, 17th ed., pp. 524–526. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Watnik S, et al. (2010). Nephrotic syndrome section of Kidney disease. In SJ McPhee, MA Papadakis, eds., Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2010, 49th ed., pp. 838–840. New York: McGraw-Hill.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerSusan C. Kim, MD - Pediatrics
Last RevisedJanuary 4, 2013

Last Revised: January 4, 2013

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