Donating a kidney 

Unlike many other types of organ donation, it's possible to donate a kidney while you're alive because you can live perfectly healthily with one kidney. This is known as a living donation.

Ideally, living donations will come from a close relative because they're more likely to share the same tissue type and blood group as the recipient, which reduces the risk of the body rejecting the kidney. However, donations from those who are not blood relatives are often possible.

Kidney donations are also possible from donors who have recently died, although this type of kidney donation has a slightly lower chance of long-term success.

Who can be a living donor?

There is no upper age-limit for people choosing to make a living kidney donation, but you'll usually need to be 18 or over.

If you decide to donate one of your kidneys, you'll need to attend a series of appointments so:

  • your blood group and tissue type can be determined, to check your compatibility with potential recipients (see below)
  • the state of your kidneys can be checked
  • your general health can be assessed
  • tests can be carried out to see if you have any serious illnesses that could affect the donation, such as HIV or diabetes

This assessment procedure can take several months, and several visits to the transplant centre may be required.

Checking compatibility

One of the biggest risks of receiving a donated kidney is that your immune system will recognise the donated kidney as foreign tissue. If this happens, your immune system will attempt to destroy it. This is known as rejection.

To minimise the risk of rejection, the kidney should ideally be donated by a donor to a recipient who shares the correct:

  • tissue type – human tissue carries a special genetic "marker" or code, known as a human leukocyte antigen (HLA); ideally, you should receive your transplant from someone with a very similar HLA tissue type
  • blood group – as with tissue, red blood cells carry a specific antigen marker (the ABO system); ideally you should receive your transplant from someone with a compatible blood group, although in some transplant centres it may be possible to receive a transplant from someone with a different blood group

For these reasons, family members are often the most suitable donors. Members of the same family often share the same genes, so are more likely to have matching HLA tissue types and blood groups.

Removing your kidney

Your kidney can be removed using:

  • laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery – a type of minimally invasive surgery that involves making several small incisions (cuts), through which fine instruments are used to remove the kidney
  • open surgery – where the kidney is removed through a single, larger incision

Laparoscopic surgery has the benefits of reduced scarring and a faster recovery time than open surgery. However, it can only be performed by a surgeon with special expertise in the procedure, so it may not always be an option.

Both types of operation are carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be asleep during the procedure and won't feel any pain while it's performed.

See what happens during a kidney transplant for information about what happens with your kidney once it's removed.

Recovery

You'll usually need to stay in hospital for up to a week if you have open surgery to remove one of your kidneys, whereas you can usually go home in three to five days after keyhole surgery.

You'll need to take it easy for a few weeks after the procedure. You can usually return to work within about a month, but you may need more time off if you have an active and strenuous job.

Risks

As with any type of surgery, removing a kidney has risks. However, most complications associated with the procedure are relatively minor and treatable.

The most common problems that occur after the operation are infections – including wound infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs) and chest infections.

More serious complications, such as blood clots or severe bleeding, are less common and can be identified and treated quickly.

The risk of dying after surgery to remove one of your kidneys is very low, occurring in less than 1 in 3,000 cases.

It's important to make sure you fully understand all risks associated with kidney donation before you consent to the procedure.

Donating your organs after you die

If you wish to donate any of your organs when you die, including your kidneys, make sure you join the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Learn about becoming an organ donor.

Page last reviewed: 14/10/2015

Next review due: 14/10/2017