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What Are the Side Effects of Living with One Kidney?

Matthew Ronin, Vice President, Research & Technology

If you have considered becoming a living kidney donor, you may be wondering about the side effects of donating a kidney and how life might be different with just one kidney. Here’s what you need to know.

You Only Need One

Did you know that you only need one kidney to live? Most other organs don’t come in pairs, and each one is essential. That is not the case for kidneys. While most people are born with two kidneys, it’s possible to live a healthy life with just one kidney. This is why some people decide to “share their spare” through living kidney donation.

Living with one kidney is not only possible but fairly common. In fact, about one in 1,000 babies are born with one kidney, and another one in 1,000 are born with two kidneys, but only one works. People with one kidney can lead perfectly healthy lives, sometimes without ever realizing they only have one kidney.

The human body is remarkably adaptable, and living with one kidney does not pose significant health problems for most people. The remaining kidney usually compensates for the absence of the other, taking on the workload of maintaining the body’s balance of fluids and electrolytes, filtering waste products from the blood, and regulating blood pressure.

If you started life with two kidneys but decided to donate one to someone who needs a kidney transplant—either a friend or family member or one of the more than 90,000 people on the waitlist for a donor kidney—the same holds true. In most cases, there are no serious side effects of living with one kidney. In fact, most donors say they can’t tell the difference between having two kidneys and having one.

Long-Term Effects of Donating a Kidney

While in most cases there are no side effects to living with one kidney, it’s important to take care of your kidney health when living with just one kidney. This includes maintaining a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and balanced diet.

If you donate a kidney, you’ll have regular follow-ups to ensure your kidney is functioning normally—typically three months, six months, one year, and two years after donation. These follow-ups will include blood and urine tests to ensure the remaining kidney is working as expected and address any issues.

Living kidney donors should also see their primary care physicians to monitor other aspects of their health that may affect their remaining kidney, including blood pressure, weight, and any signs of kidney-affecting diseases or conditions such as diabetes or kidney stones. By taking generally good care of yourself and consulting a doctor promptly if you experience any problems or have any questions, you can lead a full, active life with one kidney, with no significant side effects.

In the unlikely event something happens to your remaining kidney and you need a kidney transplant, if you donated through the National Kidney Registry, you will be prioritized for a living donor kidney transplant. Learn more about kidney prioritization.

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