What is hyperkalemia?
an essential electrolyte,
which is a mineral that your body needs to function correctly. This mineral is
particularly important for your nerves and muscles. All of your muscles need
potassium, including your heart. Healthy kidneys flush excess potassium out of
While potassium is indeed important, getting too much can be just as bad or worse than
not getting enough of the nutrient. Hyperkalemia is a condition that occurs
when your blood contains too much potassium.
According to the Mayo
Clinic, a normal range for potassium is between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per
liter (mmol/L) of blood. A potassium level higher than 5.5 mmol/L is critically
high, and a potassium level over 6.0 mmol/L can be life-threatening. This condition
is dangerous, and requires prompt medical attention to prevent potential
What causes high potassium?
The most common cause of high potassium is kidney failure. When
your kidneys fail, they can’t remove extra potassium from the body. This can
lead to potassium buildup.
Another possible cause of high potassium is heavy alcohol or drug
use, which can cause your muscles to break down. This breakdown can release a
high amount of potassium into your blood from your muscle cells.
Overusing potassium supplements or taking certain chemotherapy
drugs can also increase your levels of potassium to above the normal range.
Certain kinds of trauma can raise your potassium levels as well.
In such cases, extra potassium is leaked from your body cells into the
bloodstream. Burns, injuries, heart attack, and even drug overdoses can cause
High potassium may also be linked to certain health conditions,
- type 1 diabetes
- Addison’s disease
- internal bleeding
Recognizing the symptoms of high potassium
The symptoms of high potassium depend on the level of the mineral
in your blood. You may not experience any symptoms at all. If your potassium
levels are high enough to cause symptoms, you may have:
- fatigue or weakness
- a feeling of numbness or tingling
- nausea or vomiting
- problems breathing
- chest pain
- palpitations or skipped heartbeats
In extreme cases, high potassium can cause paralysis and heart
problems. If your potassium levels are too high, your heartbeat can become
irregular and you can have heart failure. If left untreated, high potassium
levels can even cause your heart to stop.
Because of this, it’s important that you see your doctor promptly
if you start experiencing any of these symptoms. If you have extremely high
potassium levels, you’ll need to be hospitalized until your levels are back to
Diagnosis of high potassium
Your doctor will routinely perform blood tests during your annual
checkup or if you have recently started a new medication. Any abnormalities in
your potassium levels will show up on these tests.
It’s important to have regular checkups because you may not be
aware you have high potassium levels until you start developing symptoms.
How are high potassium levels treated?
Usually, treatment for high potassium levels aims to help your
body get rid of the excess potassium quickly and to stabilize your heart.
If you have high potassium due to kidney failure, hemodialysis is
your best treatment option. Hemodialysis uses
a machine to remove waste from your blood because your kidneys cannot filter
your blood effectively.
Drugs may also be used to treat your high potassium levels. You
might be given gluconate to reduce the effect that potassium has on your heart.
Your doctor might also prescribe diuretics, which are pills that
cause you to urinate more. Diuretics will help your kidneys get rid of excess
potassium. Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor might
recommend one or more of the following types of diuretics:
- loop diuretics
- potassium-sparing diuretics
- thiazide diuretics
Each type of diuretic targets a different part of the kidneys.
In some cases, you might be given a resin to be taken orally.
Resin binds with potassium, allowing it to be removed from your body during
your bowel movements.
In addition to medical treatments, you can also help alleviate
the symptoms of high potassium levels at home.
One of the easiest ways to naturally lower your potassium levels
is to reduce the amount of potassium in your diet. This means limiting foods
and supplements that are high in potassium. Some foods that are high in
- sweet potatoes
Some salt substitutes are also high in potassium. When you buy a
salt substitute, make sure to avoid any that list KCI (potassium chloride) as
an ingredient. Foods that are high in additives, such as commercial baked goods
and sports drinks, are also usually high in potassium.
It may also help if you eat less red or processed meat. Try to
drink more water and exercise regularly, too.
You may like to take herbs as a way to treat your ailments.
However, there are a few herbs that you shouldn’t take when you have high
potassium levels. Alfalfa, nettle, and dandelion can increase your potassium
levels and should be avoided.
With prompt intervention, high potassium can be treated. Since
symptoms are difficult to detect in the early stage, it’s important to get
regular blood tests. Your results will help your doctor choose the treatment
plan that’s right for you. If your potassium levels are slightly elevated and
you don’t have any others symptoms of hyperkalemia, then your doctor may choose
to monitor your condition and order a follow-up test. Dialysis and
hospitalization may be required if kidney failure is suspected.
The best way to avoid high potassium is to take steps to ensure
your blood levels remain stable.