Staying in close contact with the transplant team is critical to avoiding and treating organ rejection. Taking daily immunosuppressive medications for the life of the transplant and sticking to the medication regimen is also part of this plan. Staying healthy also means knowing the risks; transplant recipients are more likely to develop heart and blood vessel disease, diabetes, cancer and infection.

Tips for patients

So what can a patient do? To start, treat high blood pressure (also known as hypertension). For most people, blood pressure should be kept below 140/90, but patients should consult their doctors to determine what range is right for them.

Working with a physician, patients can lose weight, limit sodium (salt) in the diet, follow a daily physical activity program and work with a doctor to adjust medications as needed. Diet and physical activity can also help reduce high cholesterol, too. Daily doses of immunosuppressive medication increase the chance of developing high cholesterol. When cholesterol builds up inside the blood vessels, it increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. So along with diet and exercise, medication for high cholesterol may also be prescribed.

Diabetes risk

Controlling diabetes is another vital step on the path to staying healthy post-transplant. About 25 percent of kidney recipients have diabetes before transplantation and another 15 percent develop the disease after transplantation. Diabetes can be treated through a careful balance of good diet, medication and exercise, and by checking blood sugar often.

Good nutrition also plays a key role in staying healthy. Patients should follow a balanced diet low in salt and with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, reduced-fat dairy products, whole grains and plenty of water. A dietician can create an individualized meal plan based on special health needs and goals. A weight gain of 20 percent or more in the first year post-transplant is common, so starting with good nutrition from the outset is essential to staying healthy in the long run.

“About 25 percent of kidney recipients have diabetes before transplantation and another 15 percent develop the disease after transplantation.”

Cancer and infection

Immunosuppressive medications also put patients at an increased risk of cancer and serious infections. Cancer of the skin and lips are the most common types, though cancers of the breast, colon and lung can also occur. Patients need to know the signs and symptoms of these cancers, and take basic precautions like avoiding smoking and limiting sun exposure, wearing sunscreen, and getting a yearly cancer screening.

Infections are most common in the first 30 days after transplant, but after about six months, the risks of infection will generally decrease. Ensuring that all vaccinations are up-to-date is important, but certain live vaccines should be avoided.

Setting expectations

Finally, patients should consider getting connected to a strong support system to engage with other transplant recipients — this shared experience is a common bond that provides comfort and encouragement through all the ups and downs along the transplant path.

Sometimes, despite everyone’s best efforts, transplanted kidneys still fail and patients shouldn’t blame themselves. Young people with kidney failure, in particular, may be treated with several transplants or other forms of kidney replacement therapy throughout their lives. If a transplant fails, it is common that patients return to, or begin, dialysis; estimates show that nearly 6,000 patients return to dialysis after a transplant each year in the U.S. But each case is different and the patient and doctor will decide together if another kidney transplant is the best option or if home dialysis or in-center dialysis is the better choice.

A kidney transplant is a life-saving gift — good follow-up, effort and knowing the risks can help protect this gift over the long-term.