• Clinical science

Nephrotic syndrome


Nephrotic syndrome is characterized by a massive renal loss of protein (> 3.5 g/day) resulting in edema, hypercoagulability (antithrombin III deficiency), and an increased risk of infection (loss of immunoglobulins). Typical laboratory findings of nephrotic syndrome include hyperlipidemia and fatty casts on urinalysis. The most common causes of nephrotic syndrome in adults are focal segmental glomerulosclerosis and membranous nephropathy. Both diseases usually require immunosuppressive therapy. In children, nephrotic syndrome is most commonly caused by minimal change disease, a benign condition that responds well to corticosteroids. However, nephrotic syndrome can also be a manifestation of advanced renal disease (e.g., diabetic nephropathy, amyloidosis). These diseases are associated with a worse prognosis and are more difficult to treat.


Nephrotic syndrome
Proteinuria > 3.5 g/24h



Differential diagnoses of nephrotic syndrome
Associations Findings


Minimal change disease

  • Most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in children
  • Can be associated with tumors (e.g., Hodgkin lymphoma)
Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis
  • Most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in black populations
  • Can be associated with heroin abuse, HIV infection, obesity, and sickle cell disease
  • LM: segmental sclerosis
  • IM: IgM and C3 inside the sclerotic regions
  • EM: effacement of the foot processes
Membranous nephropathy
  • LM: glomerular capillary loops and basement membrane appear thickened
  • IM: subepithelial deposits
  • EM: subepithelial dense deposits (“spike and dome appearance”)
Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis
  • IG-mediated
  • Complement-mediated
    • Low serum C3 levels: patients with dense deposit disease often have IgG antibodies, so-called nephritic factor, against the C3 convertase, leading to persistent complement activation.
    • IM: C3 deposits on basement membrane
  • Both:
  • No single effective treatment
Diabetic nephropathy
  • Leading cause of ESRD in the industrialized world
  • Treatment of underlying disease
  • LM: Congo red stain shows apple green birefringence under polarized light
Lupus nephritis
LM = light microscopy, IM = immunofluorescent microscopy, EM = electron microscopy

Minimal change disease is the most common cause of nephrotic syndrome in children. In adults, nephrotic syndrome is most commonly caused by focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (black populations) and membranous nephropathy (white populations)!




Clinical features





Renal biopsy



General measures

If the patient has an AT III deficiency, heparin is ineffective. Consider oral anticoagulants!





We list the most important complications. The selection is not exhaustive.


  • Prognosis of minimal change disease is usually excellent
  • With a wide variety of underlying diseases, the response to treatment can differ dramatically. Even patients receiving treatment commonly develop progressive renal failure and a need for dialysis.
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last updated 06/11/2019
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