The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20 million people have chronic kidney disease, with many in this group unaware their kidneys are in trouble. That's because in its early stages, kidney disease often has no symptoms, and it can go undetected until it is very advanced.

How often do you think about your kidneys? Did you know that kidney disease is the ninth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more Americans than either breast cancer or prostate cancer?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20 million people have chronic kidney disease, with many in this group unaware their kidneys are in trouble. That’s because in its early stages, kidney disease often has no symptoms, and it can go undetected until it is very advanced.

March is National Kidney Month, and the National Kidney Foundation urges you to give your kidneys a second thought. Let’s start with some basic anatomy. Your kidneys are two fist-sized organs located in your lower back. Although most of us are born with two kidneys, we only need one functioning kidney to live a normal, healthy life. Kidneys have many remarkable functions, including:

Filtering waste out of 200 liters of blood, daily

Regulating the body’s salt, potassium and acid content

Removing drugs from the body

Balancing the body’s fluids

Releasing hormones that regulate blood pressure

Producing an active form of vitamin D

Controlling production of red blood cells.

The presence of kidney disease means that the kidneys are damaged and can’t filter blood they way they should. Main causes of kidney disease include high blood pressure; diabetes; recurrent kidney infections that may have caused scarring; inherited diseases; overuse of over-the-counter pain medications; illegal drug use; and traumatic injury.

As already mentioned, early stages of kidney disease often have no symptoms. Once symptoms appear, they may include swelling of the face or ankles; changes in urine frequency or color; foamy urine; nausea; vomiting; changes in taste; numbness of fingers or toes; and fatigue or exhaustion. Caught early, treatment of kidney disease is very effective. But, kidney disease is a progressive disease, meaning the damage can’t be undone.

If you have kidney disease, diet changes will play a big role in maintaining your health. You may need to watch your protein intake because too much protein can cause waste to buildup in your blood, making your kidneys work harder.

Watching your sodium intake is important to help control your blood pressure and limit fluid buildup. Too little or too much potassium can be dangerous; the amount you need depends on how well your kidneys are functioning and what medications you are on.

As kidney function decreases, you may need to watch your phosphorus and calcium intake. Extra phosphorus can build up and result in weak bones. You may also need to restrict your fluids. A registered dietitian can help you meet your specific nutrition needs. In addition to diet changes, you may be treated with medications.

Should your kidney function continue to decline, you may need dialysis. Hemodialysis uses a machine to help filter and cleanse your blood. You also might be eligible for a kidney transplant, either from a living donor or from a recently deceased donor. The current waiting list for kidney transplants is about three and a half years.

Prevention is the best cure for kidney disease, so follow these tips for healthy kidneys:

Stay hydrated. Kidneys need hydration to work properly as they filter out waste through your urine.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Eat foods high in antioxidants to promote kidney health. Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables, including red bell peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and berries.

Lower your sodium intake. Too much sodium can increase high blood pressure, which can damage the kidneys.

Control your blood glucose. Diabetes is a major contributor to kidney disease because it damages blood vessels in the body that prevent the kidneys from working properly.

Live a healthy life. Don’t smoke, get plenty of exercise, maintain a healthy weight, use alcohol in moderation, and avoid illegal drugs.