Potassium is an important electrolyte, which is a mineral your body needs to function properly. Potassium is very important for your arteries and muscles, including your heart.
While potassium is important for your health, getting too many nutrients can be worse, or worse than not getting enough. Usually, your kidneys maintain a healthy balance of potassium by releasing more potassium into your body. But for many reasons, the level of potassium in your blood can be very high. This is called hyperkalemia, or high potassium.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the normal range of potassium is between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) of blood. Potassium levels above 5.5 mmol/L are very high, and potassium levels above 6 mmol/L can be life-threatening. Slight variations in grades may occur depending on the laboratory.
Whether you have mild or severe hyperkalemia, you should get treatment immediately to prevent possible complications.
A number of factors can contribute to hyperkalemia, including health problems and the use of certain medications.
Kidney failure is the most common cause of high potassium. When your kidneys fail or malfunction, they are unable to remove excess potassium from your body. This can lead to the formation of potassium.
Other Health Conditions
High potassium can also be linked to certain health problems, such as:
- type 1 diabetes
- addison’s disease
- internal bleeding
Certain drugs have been linked to high potassium levels.
- certain chemotherapy drugs
- angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- angiotensin receptor blockers
Excessive use of potassium supplements can increase your potassium levels to a higher level than normal or harmful.
Alcohol or drug use
Overuse of alcohol or drugs can cause your muscles to break down. This drop can release high levels of potassium from your muscle cells to your bloodstream.
Certain types of stress can also increase your potassium levels. In these cases, extra potassium is released from the cells of your body into your bloodstream. Burning or crushing injury when a large number of muscle cells are damaged can cause these effects.
Symptoms of high potassium
Signs of high potassium depend on the level of minerals in your blood. You may have no symptoms at all.
But if your potassium levels are high enough to cause symptoms, you may be:
- fatigue or weakness
- a feeling of numbness or tingling
- nausea or vomiting
- breathing hard
- chest pain
- irregular heartbeat
In severe cases, high potassium can cause paralysis or heart failure. If left untreated, high levels of potassium can cause your heart to stop.
The general purpose of the treatment of high potassium levels is to help your body get rid of excess potassium faster and stabilize your heart.
If you have high potassium due to kidney failure, hemodialysis is your best treatment. Hemodialysis uses a machine to remove waste from your bloodstream, including excess potassium, where your kidneys cannot filter your blood properly.
Your doctor may also prescribe medication for your high potassium levels.
These may include:
Calcium gluconate: Calcium gluconate can help reduce the effect of your heart’s potassium until high levels of potassium are stabilized.
Diuretics: Your doctor may also prescribe diuretics, which are pills that make you urinate more. Some diuretics increase the amount of potassium excreted by the kidneys while other diuretics do not increase potassium excretion.
Depending on your potassium level, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following types of diuretics:
- loop diuretics
- potassium-sparing diuretics
- thiazide stomach
Each type of diuretic targets a different part of the kidneys.
Resin: In some cases, you may be given a medicine called resin to take orally. The resin binds with potassium, allowing it to be removed from your body during your bowel movement.
What happens if your potassium is high?
Having too much potassium in your blood can be dangerous. Potassium affects the way your heart's muscles work. When you have too much potassium, your heart may beat irregularly, which in the worst cases, can cause a heart attack. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 for emergency help.
What causes potassium levels to be high?
The leading causes of hyperkalemia are chronic kidney disease, uncontrolled diabetes, dehydration, having had severe bleeding, consuming excessive dietary potassium, and some medications. A doctor will typically diagnose hyperkalemia when levels of potassium are between 5.0–5.5 milliequivalents per liter (mEq/l).
Can dehydration cause high potassium?
The body becomes dehydrated when it loses more fluids than it consumes. When the body doesn't have enough fluids, it can't process potassium properly, and potassium builds up in the blood, which can lead to hyperkalemia. Symptoms of dehydration include excessive thirst, less frequent urination, and darker urine.
When should hyperkalemia be treated?
Patients with neuromuscular weakness, paralysis or ECG changes, and elevated potassium of more than 5.5 mEq/L in patients at risk for ongoing hyperkalemia, or confirmed hyperkalemia of 6.5 mEq/L should have aggressive treatment.