What are the Symptoms of an Organ Transplant Rejection?

Sandy Baker
Sandy Baker
Donor organs are sometimes attacked by the recipient's immune system.
Donor organs are sometimes attacked by the recipient's immune system.

The symptoms of organ transplant rejection vary based on the specific organ transplanted. Organ transplant rejection occurs when the recipient's immune system attacks the newly implanted tissue or organ. Symptoms of this immune system reaction include poor function of the organ, pain, and general discomfort.

Doctors monitor for organ transplant rejection as soon as the recipient receives the transplanted organ. The first sign of rejection is a malfunctioning or poorly functioning organ. In a heart transplant, the heart may not pump properly. In a kidney transplant, the kidneys may not filter the blood properly, allowing waste products to reenter the blood stream. Liver transplant recipients face graft rejection.

The immune system's response to any transplant is a critical aspect of any organ transplantation. After the initial procedure, monitoring the function of the organ is critical to determine if the body's immune system is compromising it. The immune system reacts to antigens on the surface of anything that enters the body. If it finds them on the organ transplanted, it will attack the organ. The immune system attacks the foreign substance with antibodies as if it was a disease or illness.

Each organ is monitored for a period to determine if rejection is occurring. In kidney transplants, symptoms of rejection include less urine output than normal. In heart transplants, a lower tolerance for exertion and shortness of breath are symptoms. For liver transplants, yellow skin and bleeding easily are symptoms of organ transplant rejection.

Monitoring the individual organ's function is critical, as is monitoring the overall health and well-being of the patient. A general level of discomfort or ill feeling can be a symptom of rejection. Uneasiness may occur. Rare symptoms associated with rejection including pain and swelling in the area of the transplant and fever.

The only way a true diagnosis of organ transplant rejection may occur is through testing. A biopsy of the transplanted organ is done to determine if antibodies are present in the tissue. Other tests include chest x-rays, CT scans, echocardiographs of the heart, and kidney arteriography, depending on which organ has been transplated. For the kidney and liver, doctors also use lab tests of blood and urine.

Symptoms of organ transplant rejection may occur in the weeks, months, or even years after the transplantation occurs. Even when the transplant is successful initially, infections and other illnesses can lead to rejection later. Immunosuppressive treatment is often the best treatment for rejection. This treatment protocol generally is part of regular care after the transplant to prevent rejection.

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Discussion Comments

Lostnfound

A good friend of mine was born with cystic fibrosis and received a double lung transplant. She was fine for a few years and then went into what doctors called "chronic rejection." She received excellent medical care, but they never could reverse the rejection course and her physical condition deteriorated to the point where she was no longer a candidate for another transplant. She died at age 27.

Rejection is that specter that haunts every transplant recipient. Fortunately, the odds are much better than they used to be, but rejection is still a huge issue.

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    • Donor organs are sometimes attacked by the recipient's immune system.
      By: Dan Race
      Donor organs are sometimes attacked by the recipient's immune system.