Nephrotic Syndrome in Children

Nephrotic syndrome is a renal disorder caused by conditions that increase the permeability of the glomerular filtration barriers. Nephrotic syndrome affects all age groups but has a higher pediatric prevalence. This disorder can be due to both primary (renal) and secondary (systemic) causes. Minimal change disease (MCD), is the most common presentation in children. Hallmark features include proteinuria of > 40 mg/m²/day, hypoalbuminemia, hypercholesterolemia, and edema. Diagnosis is based on history, physical exam, laboratory tests confirming nephrotic-range proteinuria and workup for systemic disease. Genetic testing is recommended in some cases. Steroids are the initial treatment in a classic presentation of the typically steroid-responsive MCD. In other cases, renal biopsy is indicated. Management and prognosis vary depending on the underlying cause and response to steroids.

Last update:

Table of Contents

Share this concept:

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email
Share on whatsapp



Nephrotic syndrome is a renal disorder characterized by increased permeability of the glomerular filtration barriers significantly leading to severe proteinuria.

Classic features include:

  • Nephrotic-range proteinuria of > 40 mg/m²/hour
  • Hypoalbuminemia, often < 2.5 g/dL
  • Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Edema


  • Occurs at any age but more commonly seen in school-aged children and adolescents
  • Worldwide incidence 16 cases per 100,000 children
  • Male > female (2:1) in younger children but evens out in adolescence
  • 90% of cases in children are due to primary causes (e.g., minimal change disease (MCD)).
  • Higher incidence of chronic glomerular disease in children ≥ 12 years of age


Different general classification systems can overlap:

  • Based on onset in those ≤ 1 year of age:
    • Congenital (< 3 months of age)
    • Infantile (3 months to 1 year of age)
  • Based on presence of systemic disease or underlying process:
    • Primary nephrotic syndrome (includes idiopathic)
    • Secondary nephrotic syndrome

Idiopathic nephrotic syndrome is further classified on the basis of steroid responsiveness:

  • Steroid-responsive (majority of cases)
  • Steroid-resistant 
  • Steroid-dependent



  • Denys–Drash syndrome (associated with high risk for Wilms’ tumor)
  • Congenital nephrotic syndrome of the Finnish type (autosomal recessive)
  • Autosomal recessive familial focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS)
  • Autosomal dominant FSGS
  • Frasier syndrome
  • Diffuse mesangial sclerosis
  • Nail–patella syndrome
  • Pierson syndrome
  • Schimke immuno-osseous dysplasia
  • Nongenetic causes (also classified as secondary): 
    • Congenital syphilis
    • Congenital toxoplasmosis
    • Other: cytomegalovirus, HIV

Primary (90% idiopathic):

  • MCD: most common presentation and histologic finding of nephrotic syndrome in school-aged children
  • FSGS
  • Mesangial proliferation
  • Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis (MPGN)
  • Membranous nephropathy (rare in children)


  • Diseases or conditions:
    • Systemic lupus erythematosus (can be nephritic or nephrotic)
    • Henoch–Schönlein purpura  (can be nephritic or nephrotic)
    • Amyloidosis
    • IgA nephropathy (more often nephritic)
    • Lymphoma
    • Diabetes mellitus
  • Medications, such as NSAIDs
  • Infections:
    • Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis (PSGN; can be nephritic or nephrotic)
    • Hepatitis B
    • Hepatitis C
    • HIV
    • Malaria
  • Renal scarring


The structure of the glomerulus creates a filtration system, the glomerular filtration barrier, composed of:

  • Fenestrated endothelium
  • Glomerular basement membrane (GBM)
  • Epithelial layer:
    • Podocytes and foot processes
    • Filtration slits
    • Slit diaphragm

Under normal circumstances, the passage of proteins across the glomerular filtration barrier is controlled by their size or charge.

  • Size of the molecules:
    • Barrier is permeable only to water, small proteins, and ions.
    • Proteins with high molecular weight cannot cross the GBM.
  • Charge of the molecules:  
    • The GBM is negatively charged owing to the presence of polyanions, such as heparan sulfate proteoglycans.
    • Anions such as albumin are repelled.

Genetic or immune-mediated factors lead to:

  • Structural or functional damage to components of the glomerular filtration barrier such as the podocytes
  • Loss of negative charge enables the filtration of anions such as albumin
  • Increased permeability of the membrane 
  • Subsequent loss of proteins from plasma into the urinary space


  • Heavy proteinuria → loss of albumin (hypoalbuminemia) → ↓ intravascular osmotic pressure → edema
  • ↑ Hepatic lipogenesis (a nonspecific response to hypoalbuminemia) + abnormal regulatory enzymes → hyperlipidemia
  • Loss of endogenous anticoagulants (antithrombin III) → thrombotic and thromboembolic complications
  • Loss of immunoglobulins → increased risk for infections, especially from encapsulated bacteria

Clinical Presentation

  • Edema:
    • Pitting
    • Gravity-dependent:
      • Starts with periorbital edema (which decreases during the day)
      • Lower-extremity edema then noted during the day
      • When reclining, back and sacral edema are noted.
    • Often sudden onset after a recent illness such as an upper respiratory infection
  • Dyspnea due to:
    • Pleural effusion
    • Ascites
    • Pneumonia
    • Pulmonary embolism
  • Nonspecific: headache, fatigue, irritability, abdominal pain
  • May present with hematuria (mixed nephritic and nephrotic syndrome)
  • May have hypertension
  • May present with complications:
    • Infections (due to impaired immune response)
    • Thromboembolic event (due to hypercoagulable state)
Edema due to nephrotic syndrome

Nephrotic syndrome:
Condition is accompanied by retention of water and sodium. The image shows facial swelling/edema. The degree to which edema occurs can vary between slight edema in the eyelids that decreases during the day, to swelling affecting the lower limbs, to generalized swelling or full-blown anasarca.

Image: “Nephrotic syndrome” by Charles Picavet. License: Public Domain


Urine studies

  • 24-hour urine collection (gold standard): 
    • Protein quantification
    • Nephrotic syndrome is protein excretion > 40 mg/m²/hour (> 50 mg/kg/day).
  • First morning spot urine protein/urine creatinine ratio:  
    • Useful in children in whom a timed 24-hour collection is not always possible
    • Persistent proteinuria: 
      • Defined as spot urine protein/creatinine ratio of > 0.2 mg/mg (> 0.5 for children 6 to 24 months of age) noted on several occasions
      • Requires further evaluation to determine any underlying renal pathology
    • Nephrotic syndrome is urine protein/creatinine ratio of > 2 mg/mg. 
  • Urinalysis:
    • Dipstick urine protein:
      • 3+ (consistent with > 300 mg/dL)
      • 4+ (consistent with > 2000 mg/dL)
    • Fatty casts (“Maltese cross” under polarized light)
    • Hematuria (RBCs) or RBC casts in mixed nephritic–nephrotic syndrome

Additional tests

  • CMP:
    • Electrolytes:
      • Often normal
      • Hyponatremia may occur owing to underlying condition, inappropriate antidiuretic hormone release, or aggressive diuretic therapy.
      • Calcium may be low owing to hypoalbuminemia, but ionized calcium is usually normal.
    • BUN/creatinine:
      • May be normal
      • May be elevated in renal insufficiency
    • Serum albumin < 2.5 g/dL
  • Hypogammaglobulinemia
  • Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Complement levels (C3, C4)
  • Other effects from low binding proteins:
    • Decreased vitamin D (due to reduced vitamin D–binding protein)
    • Reduced thyroxine (due to decreased thyroid-binding protein)
  • Disease-specific tests:
    • PSGN:
      • Elevated antistreptolysin O (ASO) titers
      • Elevated anti DNase B antibodies
      • Decrease in serum complement C3 due to consumption
    • Systemic lupus erythematosus:
      • ANA
      • Anti–double-stranded DNA (dsDNA)
    • Diabetes mellitus: fasting glucose, glycosylated hemoglobin (A1c)
    • Additional: HIV (membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis (MPGN), FSGS); hepatitis B and C (MPGN); serologic test for syphilis
  • Genetic testing if steroid-resistant or < 1 year of age
  • Imaging: renal ultrasound to determine size and exclude obstructive causes

Glomerular disease differentiation

  • Nephritic and nephrotic syndromes are common presentations of glomerular diseases that can be a diagnostic challenge.
  • Nephritic syndrome is characterized by glomerular inflammation, while the nephrotic type has deranged glomerular capillary walls resulting in increased permeability.
  • There are overlapping findings, including proteinuria and edema, but the extent differs.
  • Additionally, some diseases have a mixed picture: nephritic–nephrotic syndrome.
  • Knowledge of the differences aid in arriving at the possible diagnoses.
Differences between nephrotic and nephritic syndrome
Nephrotic syndromeNephritic syndrome
Blood pressureNormal/raisedRaised
Hematuria– or microscopic+++
Other features
  • Hypoalbuminemia
  • Hyperlipidemia
  • Hypercoagulability
  • RBC casts
  • Sterile pyuria


  • Often not necessary to establish diagnosis
  • Indications:
    • < 1 year of age or > 10–12 years of age at onset
    • No response to steroids (steroid-resistant)
    • Relapse with steroid taper (steroid-dependent)
    • History and other findings suggest secondary nephrotic syndrome or primary nephrotic syndrome other than minimal change disease.
    • Family history of kidney disease
Laboratory and biopsy results of primary nephrotic syndromes in children
Nephrotic syndromeLaboratory and additional testsRenal biopsy results
MCDRenal function generally remains good; no hematuria
  • LM: minimal mesangial proliferation or normal (hence the name “minimal change”)
  • IF: no immune complex deposition
  • EM: uniform podocyte effacement (flattening, retraction)
FSGSMay have hematuria in urine
  • LM: focal and segmental sclerosis in some glomeruli
  • IF: may have IgM, C3 in sclerotic areas
  • EM: focal epithelial cell detachment/denudation with diffuse podocyte effacement (hallmark of FSGS)
Mesangial proliferationMay have hematuria in urine
  • LM: increased mesangial matrix and increased mesangial hypercellularity
  • IF: negative
  • EM: podocyte effacement
MPGN (a pattern of glomerular injury with types I–III)↓ C3
  • LM: mesangial hypercellularity, endocapillary proliferation, double contour/“tram track” appearance of GBM
  • IF:
    • I: IgG, C3, C1q, C4
    • II: C3
    • III: C3
  • EM:
    • I: subendothelial deposits
    • II: dense deposits
    • III: subepithelial and subendothelial deposits
LM: light microscopy
IF: immunofluorescence
EM: electron microscopy
GN: glomerulonephritis


Treatment approach

  • As the majority of pediatric nephrotic cases are due to MCD (which is often steroid-responsive), steroid treatment is initiated even without biopsy in the following cases:
    • Patients 1–12 years of age
    • History and findings not suggestive of systemic disease
    • Normal kidney function
    • No macroscopic hematuria
    • Normal complement levels
    • Negative viral tests: active or latent infection ruled out
    • No family history of kidney disease
  • Additionally, FSGS responds to steroids in 10%–20% of cases.

Immunosuppressive treatment

  • Steroids: need to rule out active or latent infection before initiation
  • Steroid responses:
    • Steroid-sensitive: 
      • Remission (disappearance of proteinuria) with 4–8 weeks of treatment
      • Seen in majority of pediatric patients
    • Steroid-resistant: 
      • No remission after completion of steroid treatment
      • Additional evaluation: biopsy and genetic testing
    • Steroid-dependent: 
      • Experience relapse during tapering
      • Reinitiation of steroids required (longer course)
  • 2nd-line agents:
    • Given if there are major steroid side effects (e.g., cushingoid features, excess weight, psychiatric disturbances, cataracts)
    • Options:
      • Mycophenolate mofetil
      • Cyclosporine
      • Tacrolimus
      • Levamisole (not available in the United States)
      • Cyclophosphamide (has serious side effects)

Additional management

  • Edema:
    • Salt restriction
    • Diuretic therapy: often furosemide
    • In anasarca/severe edema/pleural effusion: furosemide + albumin 
  • Hypercoagulable state:
    • Encourage regular ambulation.
    • Avoid volume depletion (to reduce risk of hemoconcentration).
    • Anticoagulation prophylaxis is not proven.
    • Venous thromboembolism is treated with low-molecular-weight heparin and then warfarin.
  • Risk of infection:
    • Risk of encapsulated bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae: Vaccinate children ≥ 2 years of age with 23-valent pneumococcal vaccine.
    • Annual inactivated influenza vaccination
    • Avoid live vaccine while on immunosuppressive treatment (or in relapse).
    • High index of suspicion if there are signs of infection
  • Hypertension:
    • Diuretics may control blood pressure.
    • ACE inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs):
      • Decrease proteinuria
      • Caution in setting of volume depletion (may worsen kidney function)
    • Calcium channel blockers may also be used. 
  • Transplantation can be curative in some cases (e.g., Finnish-type congenital nephrotic syndrome).

Clinical Relevance

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus: chronic, autoimmune, inflammatory condition that causes immune-complex deposition in organs, resulting in systemic manifestations: Deposition of immune complexes in glomerulus leads to lupus nephritis. This condition is more common in Asian and African American females. Renal manifestations include nephritic or nephrotic syndrome, gross or microscopic hematuria, and/or chronic renal failure. Diagnosis is made with renal biopsy.
  • Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis: renal disorder in children preceded by an infection with group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus of the throat or skin: PSGN commonly presents as a nephritic syndrome, but nephrotic syndrome occurs in 5% of cases. Renal biopsy is typically not needed to establish diagnosis. The condition is usually self-limited.
  • Henoch-Schönlein purpura (HSP): also known as IgA vasculitis: Clinical features include characteristic rash, arthralgias, abdominal pain, and nephritis.  This IgA-mediated glomerulonephritis can be triggered by an upper respiratory or GI infection. HSP usually occurs in children < 10 years old. This condition can also present as nephritic syndrome.
  • Amyloidosis: a pathologic extracellular tissue deposition of fibrils composed of various misfolded low-molecular-weight protein subunits: Misfolded proteins deposit in various tissues, interfere with normal organ functions, and cause tissue-specific disease (e.g., renal amyloidosis). Manifestations for renal disease range from mild proteinuria to frank nephrosis. Diagnosis is established with renal biopsy. Dialysis or transplantation improves prognosis.
  • Congenital and infantile nephrotic syndrome: affect children < 1 year of age: Mutations that lead to nephrotic syndrome include NPHS1, NPHS2, NPHS3, LAMB2, and WT1. NPHS1 (encodes nephrin and mutation causes Finnish-type congenital nephrotic syndrome) and NPHS2 (encodes podocin and mutation leads to familial FSGS) are the most frequent genes affected (95% of cases). These disorders are not responsive to steroid or other immunosuppressive therapy, and workup should include genetic testing.


  1. Andolino TP, Reid-Adam J. (2015). Nephrotic syndrome. Pediatrics in Review.
  2. Floege J, Feehally J. (2019). Introduction to glomerular disease: Clinical presentations. In Feehally J, Floege J, Tonelli M, Johnson RJ (Eds.), Comprehensive Clinical Nephrology (pp. 18-198.e1).!/content/3-s2.0-B9780323479097000159
  3. Flores FX. (2020). Isolated glomerular diseases associated with recurrent gross hematuria. In Kliegman RM, St Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM (Eds.), Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics (pp. 272-2728.e1).!/content/3-s2.0-B978032352950100537X
  4. Gattineni J. (2012). Highlights for the management of a child with proteinuria and hematuria. International Journal of Pediatrics 2012, Article ID 768142.
  5. Lane J. (2020) Pediatric nephrotic syndrome work-up. Medscape. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from
  6. Lewis JB, Neilson EG. (2018). Glomerular diseases. In Jameson JL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Longo DL, Loscalzo J (Eds.), Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, 20th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
  7. Niaudet P. (2020). Etiology, clinical presentation, and diagnosis of nephrotic syndrome in children. UpToDate. Retrieved February 28, 2021, from
  8. Niaudet P. (2020). Symptomatic management of nephrotic syndrome in children. UpToDate. Retrieved March 3, 2021, from
  9. Niaudet P. (2021). Treatment of idiopathic nephrotic syndrome in children. UpToDate. Retrieved March 3, 2021, from

Study on the Go

Lecturio Medical complements your studies with evidence-based learning strategies, video lectures, quiz questions, and more – all combined in one easy-to-use resource.

Learn even more with Lecturio:

Complement your med school studies with Lecturio’s all-in-one study companion, delivered with evidence-based learning strategies.

🍪 Lecturio is using cookies to improve your user experience. By continuing use of our service you agree upon our Data Privacy Statement.