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Acute kidney injury in children: Clinical features, etiology, evaluation, and diagnosis

Prasad Devarajan, MD
Section Editor
Tej K Mattoo, MD, DCH, FRCP
Deputy Editor
Melanie S Kim, MD


Acute kidney injury (AKI) is defined as the abrupt loss of kidney function that results in a decline in glomerular filtration rate (GFR), retention of urea and other nitrogenous waste products, and dysregulation of extracellular volume and electrolytes. The term AKI has largely replaced acute renal failure (ARF), as it more clearly defines renal dysfunction as a continuum rather than a discrete finding of failed kidney function. Pediatric AKI presents with a wide range of clinical manifestations from a minimal elevation in serum creatinine to anuric renal failure, arises from multiple causes, and occurs in a variety of clinical settings [1-7].

An overview of the causes, clinical presentation, and diagnosis of AKI in children will be presented here. The prevention, management, and outcomes of AKI in children and the approach to AKI in newborns are presented separately. (See "Prevention and management of acute kidney injury (acute renal failure) in children" and "Neonatal acute kidney injury: Pathogenesis, etiology, clinical presentation, and diagnosis".)


AKI is defined as a decrease in glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which traditionally is manifested by an elevated or a rise in serum creatinine from baseline. Clinically, as discussed below, the most widely used laboratory finding to make the diagnosis of AKI remains an elevated (or a rise in) serum creatinine. (See 'Diagnosis' below.)

However, serum creatinine is often a delayed and imprecise test as it reflects GFR in individuals at steady state with stable kidney function, and does not accurately reflect the GFR in a patient whose renal function is changing. For example, a child in the early stages of severe AKI with a markedly reduced GFR may have a relatively normal or slightly elevated creatinine, as there has not been sufficient time for creatinine accumulation. In addition, creatinine is removed by dialysis, and it is not possible to assess renal function using serum creatinine once dialysis is initiated. Furthermore, serum creatinine levels can vary with several nonrenal factors, including age, gender, muscle mass, and the nutritional and hydration status of the child. Despite these limitations, elevated or a rise in serum creatinine continues to be the most widely used laboratory finding to make the diagnosis of AKI in children. (See 'Diagnosis' below.)

The inability of serum creatinine to accurately reflect kidney function has been especially problematic for clinical research in pediatric AKI. This has resulted in the use of more than 35 definitions of AKI in clinical studies, ranging from small changes in serum creatinine to dialysis requirement. Because of the lack of a consensus definition, comparisons among studies are difficult, resulting in a wide range of quoted epidemiology, morbidity, and mortality rates in the AKI pediatric literature [8]. Standardized definitions for pediatric AKI include the Pediatric Risk, Injury, Failure, Loss, End-Stage Renal Disease (pRIFLE), AKI Network (AKIN), and Kidney Disease Improving Global Outcomes (KDIGO) classifications. It is recommended that the KDIGO AKI definition and staging be used to guide clinical care based on consensus of pediatric nephrology experts following a systematic review of the literature. (See 'KDIGO AKI definition' below.)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Oct 24, 2017.
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