Kidney Transplant


What Is It?

A kidney transplant is a surgical procedure in which a new, healthy kidney from another person is placed in the abdomen of a person who has permanent kidney failure. This single, healthy kidney takes on the workload of both of the person’s failed kidneys. The failed kidneys usually are left in place.

The new kidney can come from a living or dead donor. A living donor usually has to be a close blood relative of the person who receives the new kidney (the recipient). However, in certain cases, a recipient’s spouse or friend can be a kidney donor.

Whether the kidney donor is living or dead, he or she must be a good match for the recipient. A good match means that the donor and recipient have similar chemical characteristics, called antigens, located on their body cells. When these chemical characteristics match, there is less risk that the recipient’s immune system will see the donor’s kidney as a foreign object and reject it.

More than 12,000 kidneys are transplanted each year in the United States. Just under 60 percent of those transplants use kidneys donated from people who recently died. In the U.S., an organization called the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) helps to locate and distribute donor organs.

What It’s Used For

Kidney transplants are used to treat advanced, permanent kidney failure, also called chronic renal failure or end-stage renal disease. In people with permanent kidney failure, both kidneys lose their ability to filter the blood and make urine. When this happens, waste products and excess minerals accumulate in the bloodstream, the body can retain excess water, and blood pressure can rise. Also, because kidneys help to maintain the body’s bones and blood, kidney failure can lead to weakened bones and anemia (a decrease in red-blood cells).

A variety of medical conditions can cause permanent kidney failure, including:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Inflammation of the kidney’s filtering units (glomerulonephritis)
  • Certain medications, including overuse of the certain pain relievers
  • Less common conditions, such as polycystic kidney disease, kidney tumors and severe kidney infections
  • Failure of a kidney transplant

Once a person develops permanent kidney failure, he or she usually is treated with dialysis, a mechanical filtering process that removes waste products and excess water from the blood. Dialysis can be done on fluid from the abdomen (called peritoneal dialysis) or directly on the blood (hemodialysis).

Dialysis treatments must continue to sustain the person’s life until a kidney transplant is completed. A kidney transplant allows the person to live without dialysis, with a more normal diet and lifestyle. In the long run, a kidney transplant is also less expensive than dialysis, and usually helps the person to live longer.


You have to meet certain criteria to be approved for a kidney transplant. In general, you cannot have an active infection, cancer or severe circulatory problems involving your heart, brain or major blood vessels. You must be willing to take medications for the rest of your life to prevent your body from rejecting the new kidney.

Your preparation will begin with a thorough medical evaluation. This includes a physical examination, chest X-ray, electrocardiogram (EKG), and several different blood tests. Blood tests will check for anemia and rule out viral illnesses such as HIV, hepatitis, herpes simplex virus and cytomegalovirus. A blood sample is needed to determine your blood type and tissue type. These tests determine if a donor is a good match. Depending on your age and sex, you may need other tests of your heart, as well as screenings for certain types of cancer. If you smoke or have problems with substance abuse, you must complete a treatment program before you receive your new kidney.

While you prepare for your kidney transplant, you will meet regularly with members of a transplant team at the medical center where you will have your surgery. The transplant team has a variety of specialists. The team usually includes a doctor who specializes in kidney problems (a nephrologist), a transplant surgeon, nurses and a social worker. These professionals can offer you a wide range of support services to help you through the pre-transplant period.

If your kidney transplant will come from a living donor, you usually will be able to schedule the time of your transplant surgery. In most cases, your pre-transplant waiting period will be only a few weeks. During this time, your donor will have medical tests to make sure that he or she is strong enough to undergo surgery. Also, tests are done to confirm that the donor’s kidneys are functioning normally.

If you do not have a living kidney donor, your name will be placed on a list with UNOS to wait for a kidney from a dead donor. This donor must be a good match for you. The average waiting time for a kidney from a dead donor is two to three years. While you are on the waiting list, the transplant team will evaluate your health periodically. You must have medical insurance that will cover the cost of a transplant or be able to pay for it yourself.

Currently, hospital costs are about $40,000 for a kidney transplant. The total cost can be more than $100,000 when you add doctors’ bills, medication and the first year of follow up care.

How It’s Done

Dead Kidney Donor
Once a good donor match is found, the transplant team will notify you immediately. You will travel to the transplant center, where you will have some brief medical tests. These tests will confirm that you are still free of infection and ready for surgery. If necessary, you also will have a pre-surgery dialysis treatment. This will ensure that your blood chemistry and fluid balance are satisfactory before the procedure.

Once you are ready for surgery, an intravenous (IV) line will be inserted into your arm to deliver fluids and medications into a vein. You will be given general anesthesia. An incision will be made in the left or right side of your lower abdomen. The donor kidney will be positioned inside you, and its blood vessels connected to yours. Lastly, the donor kidney’s ureter (the tube that carries urine away from the kidney) will be connected to your bladder.

Your new kidney probably will begin to filter blood and make urine almost immediately after it is transplanted. A plastic tube (catheter) will be inserted into your bladder to collect the urine that is being made. Your incision will be closed, and you will be taken to the intensive care unit. The entire procedure usually takes three to four hours.

For the first day or two after surgery, you will receive only fluids through the IV in your arm. After that, your urine flow should stabilize. You will be able to start consuming clear fluids, then gradually resume eating a regular diet. After a few days, the catheter will be removed, and you will be allowed to go home. The total time in the hospital is usually four to six days.

If you are not producing enough urine after surgery, you may need a few dialysis treatments. This is rare, and the treatments will stop once your new kidney begins working well enough on its own.

Living Kidney Donor
If you are receiving a new kidney from a living donor, you and your donor probably will be in side-by-side operating rooms. In many medical centers, the donor’s kidney is removed with laparoscopic surgery, which uses a tiny, tube-like camera to guide surgical instruments inside the body. The camera and surgical instruments are inserted into the body through several small incisions, rather than through a single, large incision. As a result, the donor’s average hospital stay is about two days, which is fairly short, as compared to traditional surgery. And recovery is quicker. Traditional surgery requires a larger incision in the side between the ribs and the hip (flank), and involves the removal of a donor’s rib. The hospital stay for this procedure is usually four to five days.

Once the donor kidney has been removed, the rest of the transplant procedure is the same as for a dead kidney donor.


Before you are discharged from the hospital, your doctor will give you prescriptions for several anti-rejection (immunosuppressive) drugs. These medicines decrease your body’s immune response and reduce the risk that you will reject your new kidney. You will be given a dietary plan and a schedule for follow up visits to your transplant team.

As part of your follow up care, the transplant team will ask you to measure and record your weight, blood pressure, pulse and body temperature every day. They will tell you how to determine if one of these measurements is abnormal.

If you have any questions, concerns or unexpected symptoms after your transplant, call the transplant team at any hour of the day or night.


A kidney transplant carries the usual risks of any major surgery, including the risk of bleeding, infection, heart attack or stroke and side effects from anesthesia. In addition, there is a danger that blood vessels in the transplanted kidney will become clotted or narrowed after surgery. Also, urine can leak inside the body, urine flow can become obstructed, or large blood clots can form inside the bladder.

There is a risk that the new kidney will fail or be rejected. In the U.S., about 10 percent of all donated kidneys do not survive for at least 12 months inside the recipient’s body. Transplants from living donors are generally more successful than transplants from dead donors.

Immunosuppressive drugs can cause significant side effects. These can include weight gain, increased facial hair, acne, cataracts, diabetes, high blood pressure, bone disease and other problems. In the long-term, immunosuppressive drugs can increase the risk of infections and certain types of cancer.

In spite of these potential problems, most kidney transplants are successful. About 90 percent of transplanted kidneys survive for at least one year, and about 80 percent survive for three years. Overall, most people find that their quality of life is much better after a kidney transplant.

When To Call A Professional

After your discharge, contact your transplant team immediately if:

  • You develop a fever
  • You have pain or soreness in the area of your new kidney
  • Your incision becomes red, swollen and painful, or oozes blood
  • Your urine output increases or decreases significantly
  • Your daily measurements of weight, blood pressure or pulse are outside the range given to you by the transplant team

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.