Potassium is a necessary electrolyte, a mineral that your body requires to function properly. Potassium is particularly necessary for the nerves and muscles of the body, including the heart.
While potassium is necessary for health, too much of it can be just as detrimental, if not worse, than not enough. Normally, your kidneys maintain a healthy potassium balance in your body by draining excess potassium out. However, for a variety of reasons, the level of potassium in your blood might become abnormally high. This is referred to as hyperkalemia or high potassium.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal potassium level in the blood should be between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A potassium level greater than 5.5 mmol/L is considered dangerously high, and a potassium level greater than 6 mmol/L can be fatal. Small range changes may occur based on the laboratory.
Regardless of whether your hyperkalemia is mild or severe, you should seek early medical assistance to avoid any problems.
Causes of High Potassium
- Medications: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen, some diuretics, cyclosporine, trimethoprim, angiotensin inhibitors, beta-blockers, calcium blockers, succinylcholine, digoxin, heparin, and mannitol may also cause high potassium levels.
- Higher potassium intake: Consuming too much potassium through medications or diet can cause hyperkalemia. This is rare but may affect people who have kidney disease.
- Chronic kidney disease: Lower kidney capacity means that the kidneys may not be able to filter potassium out of the body adequately.
- Uncontrolled or untreated diabetes: A lack of insulin can cause hyperkalemia.
- Heart disease: In cases of congestive heart failure, lower kidney function and treatment medication can cause hyperkalemia.
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia: A rare disease resulting from a gene mutation causes lower levels of aldosterone.
- Pseudohyperkalemia: This occurs when a person receives a false potassium reading. This may happen when using a syringe or other methods that cause hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells.
- Hypoaldosteronism or pseudohypoaldosteronism: Lack of the hormone aldosterone causes hyperkalemia.
- Injury: Damage to tissues can cause potassium levels to shift and change.
- Alcohol: Heavy alcohol or drug use can cause your muscles to break down. This breakdown can release a high amount of potassium from your muscle cells into your bloodstream.
Symptoms of High Potassium
The symptoms of high potassium vary according to the potassium concentration in your blood. You may be completely symptom-free. However, if your potassium levels are abnormally high, you may have the following symptoms:
- tiredness or weakness
- a feeling of numbness or tingling
- nausea or vomiting
- trouble breathing
- chest pain
- palpitations or irregular heartbeats
When To See The Doctor
Due to the dangerous nature of the effects of high potassium, it is critical to manage this situation immediately. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above and have been diagnosed with high potassium or have reason to believe that you do, contact your doctor immediately. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if your symptoms are severe.
If your potassium levels are really high, you will need to be hospitalized until they return to normal.
Diagnosis of High Potassium
A blood or urine test can assist your physician in diagnosing hyperkalemia. Blood tests are commonly performed by your doctor during your annual visit or if you’ve recently begun a new drug. These tests will reveal any abnormalities with your potassium levels.
If you are at danger of having an abnormally high potassium level, it is critical to undergo regular checks. This is because you may be unaware that your potassium levels are abnormally high until you begin to experience symptoms.
Treatment of High Potassium
Treatment varies depending on the potassium level. Options include:
- Diuretics: Also called water pills, these drugs make you pee more often. Your body gets rid of potassium mainly in urine.
- Intravenous (IV) therapy: Extremely high potassium levels need immediate treatment. You’ll receive an IV infusion of calcium to protect your heart. Next, you get an infusion of insulin that helps move potassium into the blood cells. You may also inhale an asthma medication called albuterol to further lower potassium levels.
- Medication management: Many people see improvement after stopping or changing certain blood pressure medications or other drugs that raise potassium levels. Your healthcare provider can determine what medication changes to make.
- Potassium binders: A daily medication binds to excess potassium in the intestines. You pass the potassium when you poop. Your provider may recommend binders if other treatments don’t lower potassium levels. Potassium binders come in oral and enema form.
- Dialysis: If potassium levels remain high, or you experience kidney failure, you may need dialysis. This treatment helps your kidneys remove excess potassium from blood.