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What is IgA Nephropathy?

Kidneys, although small and often overlooked compared to some of our other vital organs, play a critical role in fighting off infections and maintaining a healthy balance in your body every day. One of their primary functions is to act as a filtration system for your blood. Each kidney contains tiny blood vessels called glomeruli that separate waste and remove excess water and other contaminants from your blood. After passing through your kidneys, the filtered, “clean” blood re-enters your bloodstream and the waste is removed from your body through urine.

In addition to preventing infection through this blood filtration process, your immune system releases an antibody called, immunoglobulin A (IgA). While IgA plays an important role in boosting your ability to fight illness, in some people, IgA may accumulate in the kidneys, becoming logged in the glomeruli. This abnormal buildup of IgA in the kidneys is known as IgA nephropathy (formerly called Berger’s Disease).

 Over time, the accumulation of IgA in the kidneys can cause inflammation and make it more difficult for your kidney to filter waste and in some cases, lead to kidney damage.

The exact cause of this kidney disease is unclear. Studies have indicated there may be a genetic link and other environmental factors that may increase an individual’s likelihood of developing the disease. IgA nephropathy can develop in anyone, but is more common in males and in Asian or Caucasian individuals. People with liver disease, celiac disease and some chronic illnesses like HIV and other bacterial infections may also have a higher risk.

Often in its early stages, IgA nephropathy doesn’t have any tell-tale warning signs or symptoms, allowing the disease to go unnoticed for years. The most common symptom reported is changes in the appearance of urine. IgA nephropathy causes an increase of blood and protein in the urine. Visible blood may be seen or smaller, microscopic amounts of blood may cause the urine to be a darker, tea- color. Increased protein in the urine can cause a cloudier, bubbly or foamy appearance. As the disease progresses and kidney damage worsens, additional symptoms may include:

  • Pain along the side of your back below your ribs
  • Swelling in the hands and feet
  • Elevated blood pressure

It is important to note that IgA nephropathy is not the only reason blood or protein may appear in urine. It may also be due to increased intensity of exercise, certain foods or medications, a urinary tract infection and other medical conditions. If you notice blood or notice a discoloration in your urine your physician can help you determine the cause. While routine tests can confirm the presence of protein or blood in the urine, in order to confirm an IgA nephropathy diagnosis, your doctor will need to perform a kidney biopsy.

IgA neuropathy impacts each individual differently. Some patients may notice little impact on their life, and be able to maintain their kidney function for years while others may develop additional side effects or increasingly worsening kidney damage that could progress into kidney failure and require a transplant. Some additional complications of IgA neuropathy can include: 

  • High blood pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Kidney failure
  • Chronic kidney disease

There is no cure for IgA neuropathy but medications may help slow the progression of the disease and help manage some of the side effects. In order to minimize your risk of further kidney damage and maintain your kidney function, your doctor will focus on controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol level and to reduce the protein in your urine. ACE inhibitor and ARB medications may be prescribed along with dietary changes (primarily salt and protein reduction) to keep these levels within the desired range. A  In some cases fish oil supplements or immunosuppressant medications such as steroids may be recommended.

This disease affects everyone differently so it is important that you work with your physician to closely monitor your symptoms and overall wellness, determine the best treatment plan and make any changes when necessary.

To speak to a DMG nephrologist about any kidney concerns, please call 630-873-8889.

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