What are the risks of transplantation?

The risks of kidney transplantation are the same as those of any surgery. There is a risk of bleeding, infection or breathing problems. You also might experience some side effects from the medications, and you could be more prone to infections, since the medicine you will take after transplantation lowers your body’s ability to fight infection.

There is also the risk of rejection. Since the body recognizes the new kidney as a foreign object, it will normally try to get rid of it or reject it. Keep in mind, you are given medicine to prevent rejection. Because of years of experience, research and improved medicines that prevent rejection, kidney transplants are very successful with few complications after transplantation.

What is rejection?

Our bodies have a natural immune system which protects us from potentially harmful viruses and bacteria. This protection is very beneficial for us. Unfortunately, when you receive your transplant, your immune system sees the new kidney as a dangerous intruder and attacks it, much as it would a virus or bacteria. Therefore, important medications, called immunosuppressive drugs, must be taken. These drugs weaken the immune system just enough to keep it from attacking the transplanted kidney. Immunosuppressive drugs are extremely important and must be taken every day exactly as they are prescribed for as long as you have your transplanted kidney.

Does a rejection episode mean I’ll lose my kidney?

No, some rejection episodes are to be expected. They are usually mild and easily controlled by temporarily changing or increasing the drugs, but in about 10 to 15 percent of all cases, the immune system succeeds in disabling the kidney. If your body rejects the new kidney, you will go back on dialysis while waiting for another kidney transplant. Rejection can happen years after the kidney is implanted, but is most likely during the first three to six months after your operation. Two or even three transplant attempts are not uncommon.

Why is a transplant patient more likely to get an infection?

Since your immune system is intentionally weakened with immunosuppressive drugs, your body is less able to fight off the bacteria and viruses that cause infection. The possibility of infection is highest during the first three months after the operation, so you should avoid large crowds and public places. If you do get an infection, you will probably be admitted to the hospital, and the immunosuppressive drugs may be temporarily reduced.

Haisch, Carl E., MD
Harland, Robert C., MD
Morgan, Claire, MD