Polycystic kidney disease

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

People with polycystic kidney disease develop clusters of fluid-filled cysts in their kidneys. Over time, these cysts can grow, enlarging the kidneys and affecting their function. Find out more about the signs and symptoms.

What is polycystic kidney disease?

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited kidney disorder where fluid-filled cysts (sacs) develop in the kidneys. The cysts can gradually grow and multiply and can eventually become so large that they replace healthy tissue, enlarging the kidneys and affecting their function.

Types of polycystic kidney disease

The most common type of PKD is autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD). It’s uncommon for children born with this condition to have noticeable symptoms, and signs generally appear between the ages of 30 and 40.

Autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease (ARPKD) is a less common type. The symptoms start much earlier – sometimes just after birth or during childhood or adolescence.

Polycystic kidney disease symptoms

Symptoms of PKD can include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Blood in your pee

  • Pain in your tummy, back or side

  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)

  • Kidney infection

  • Kidney stones

  • Headaches

When to see a doctor

Many people have PKD for years without any noticeable symptoms. If you develop any of the symptoms above, talk to a doctor as soon as possible.
If you’ve got a close relative with PKD (a parent, sibling, or child), always see a doctor who may recommend screening for the condition.

Polycystic kidney disease diagnosis

ADPKD is usually diagnosed in adults over the age of 30, as this is when the symptoms tend to develop.

The doctor will start by looking at your family’s medical history and assessing your symptoms. They may be able to feel if your kidneys are enlarged by gently pressing your tummy.

Tests to help diagnose ADPKD include:

  • Blood pressure – To see whether your blood pressure is higher than it should be

  • Blood tests – To test how efficiently your kidneys are filtering out waste products

  • Urine tests – To see if there’s protein or blood in your pee

  • Ultrasound – Uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image of the inside of your body. This can show if there are cysts in your kidneys

  • Other scans – You may need further scans, like a CT scan or MRI scan, to give doctors a more detailed picture of your kidneys

Polycystic kidney disease treatment

f you’re diagnosed with ADPKD, you’ll usually be referred to a kidney specialist. While there’s no cure for the condition, there are some useful treatments available, and associated conditions like high blood pressure, UTIs and kidney stones can also be treated. The kidney specialist will suggest an appropriate plan for your needs.

Vasopressin receptor antagonists may be recommended to slow down the rate of growth of the cysts, which can prolong your kidney’s function. But these aren’t suitable for everyone and are usually only given to adults with chronic or rapidly progressing kidney disease.

Over-the-counter painkillers can be used to help treat any pain. The doctor will also look at how they can treat any pain that’s caused by underlying conditions.

Treatment for kidney failure

Doctors will monitor your kidney function with regular blood tests. It’s essential to think about your treatment options for kidney failure should your kidney’s function worsen - and discuss this with the doctor. The main options are:

  • Dialysis – A process where a machine removes excess water and waste products from the blood

  • Kidney transplant – A surgical procedure where a healthy kidney from a donor is implanted into your body.


The following steps can help to keep your kidneys stay as healthy as possible:

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Drinking plenty of water and fluids throughout the day

  • Following a low-salt diet and reducing the amount of protein in your diet

Polycystic kidney disease complications

In some cases, serious complications can develop. These include:

  • Liver cysts – Cysts can develop in other organs, like the liver, causing tummy pain, swelling and jaundice

  • Cardiovascular disease – High blood pressure is common in people with ADPKD, and this can lead to cardiovascular complications, including stroke, heart attack and coronary heart disease

  • Brain aneurysms – PKD puts you at a higher risk of brain aneurysms, a bulge in a blood vessel that can rupture (burst) and lead to severe complications

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi