Most people feel better and live longer after having a transplant but unwanted health problems can happen. Some health problems are common (like infections) and some are less likely to happen but can have a big impact on your life.
Infections are caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. After a kidney transplant, you have to take medicines that weaken your immune system. This puts you at a higher risk of infection since your immune system can’t fight off infections as easily.
You will need to take extra steps to prevent infections for the rest of your life, especially for the first several months after your transplant.
To help prevent an infection:
- wash your hands often
- avoid crowded areas, especially during flu season
- keep your immunizations up to date
- avoid unpasteurized dairy products and uncooked meat and fish
After a kidney transplant, you have a higher risk of developing certain infections caused by viruses (called viral infections). Some viral infections can lead to serious health problems.
If you have had an infection in the past, you may develop it again because some of the medicines you take weaken your immune system. This means your immune system may not be strong enough to fight the infection. The transplant team will watch you closely for signs of an infection and prescribe an antiviral medicine if you need it.
Some possible viral infections after having a kidney transplant include:
Other types of infections
You also have a higher risk for infections caused by bacteria, for example urinary tract infections or pneumonia. You also have a higher risk of some fungal infections, such as Candida (yeast infection).
Your transplant team will talk to you about your risk of infections during your assessment.
Diabetes is a health condition that develops when your body doesn’t make enough insulin or when your body is resistant to insulin (can’t use insulin properly). This causes blood sugar levels to be too high in your body. Insulin is a hormone that lowers blood sugar.
The medicines you take after a transplant raise your risk of developing diabetes. Some people may develop diabetes within 2 years of having a kidney transplant. For some, diabetes will only last for a short time. But others will have diabetes for the rest of their lives and may need medicines to help manage it.
If you have diabetes, the transplant might make the diabetes harder to control.
The immunosuppressive medicines you take after transplant increase the risk of some types of cancer, such as skin cancer and cervical cancer. Some cancers, such as lymphoma, are also linked to viral infections. The earlier any cancer is found, the easier it is to treat. To help lower your risk of developing cancer:
- Talk to your family doctor about cancer screening.
- Limit your time in the sun to help prevent skin cancer. Use sunscreen, wear a hat, and long sleeves to help protect your skin when you do spend time in the sun.
- Check your skin for skin changes and get your skin checked by your healthcare team.
- Stop smoking.
After a kidney transplant, there is a risk that your body will reject the new kidney. Rejection can happen at any time. Rejection is most common in the first 6 months after having the transplant.
Rejection happens to 10% to 15% of recipients who are not sensitized. When it’s caught early, rejection can be treated to help prevent the loss of the transplanted kidney. To help prevent rejection, you will take medicines that weaken your immune system (called immunosuppressants). It’s very important to take these medicines as prescribed by your transplant team to lower the risk of rejection at anytime, even years after your transplant.
Signs and symptoms of rejection
You may not know that your body is rejecting your new kidney (you may not have any symptoms). Not everyone will have symptoms and sometimes the only way to know if your body is rejecting a kidney is through blood tests.
Some signs and symptoms of rejection include:
- changes to your blood test results, for example, a higher creatinine level
- protein in the urine (pee)
- a fever or not feeling well
- the skin and tissue around the new kidney is sore and tender
Not everyone will have symptoms and the only way to know if your body is rejecting a kidney is through blood tests.
What happens if your body rejects your new kidney?
If your transplant team thinks your body may be rejecting your new kidney, you will likely need a kidney biopsy. If the biopsy shows that you are rejecting the kidney, the healthcare team will give you a high dose of immunosuppressants through an intravenous (IV). This medicine will try to stop your immune system from attacking your new kidney.
It’s important to contact your transplant team right away if you don’t feel well or you have changes to your overall health after a kidney transplant.