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STDWatch
Hannah Kingston

Sep 19, 20227 min read

What Is Hyperkalemia or High Blood Potassium?

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Potassium is an electrolyte that can be found in your blood and inside cells throughout your body. This electrolyte plays many important roles in regulating your metabolism and keeping you healthy, and potassium imbalances can lead to different health problems.

Hyperkalemia happens when there’s too much potassium in your blood, and it can be due to several different causes. Recognizing high potassium signs can help you identify this situation, and know when you need to seek medical assistance.

Keep reading to learn more about hyperkalemia or high blood potassium.

Definition of hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia is defined as having high levels of potassium in your blood. “Hyper” means high, and “kalemia” refers to the presence of potassium in your blood.

We all need potassium to survive. According to the American Kidney Fund, its main function is to maintain normal fluid levels inside and outside of your cells.

Normal serum potassium levels are between 3.5-5.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). Hyperkalemia is defined as having levels of potassium above 5.5mmol/L. Hyperkalemia can be categorized into mild, moderate, and severe categories:

  • Mid hyperkalemia: 5.5–5.9 mmol/L
  • Moderate hyperkalemia: 6.0–6.4 mmol/L
  • Severe hyperkalemia: >6.5 mmol/L

Hyperkalemia risk factors

Anyone can develop hyperkalemia. But according to the Cleveland Clinic, high potassium risk factors include:

Causes of hyperkalemia

When you have hyperkalemia, there’s more potassium in your body than what your kidneys can remove. There are different issues that can lead to hyperkalemia. According to the National Kidney Foundation, causes of hyperkalemia can include:

Kidney disease

Under normal circumstances, your kidneys work continuously to filter blood, and remove excess electrolytes and waste. If you have kidney disease, your kidneys aren’t able to work properly and can’t balance the amount of electrolytes in your blood. This issue isn’t usually serious in the early stages of kidney disease, since your kidneys can still compensate for the damaged tissue. However, patients with severe kidney disease can develop hyperkalemia and other electrolyte imbalances.

Excessive potassium intake

We get potassium from the foods and beverages we consume everyday. You’re unlikely to develop hyperkalemia if you eat a healthy and balanced diet. However, you can develop high potassium levels and symptoms if you eat foods that contain too much potassium. You can also have elevated potassium symptoms if you take excessive supplementation.

Sources of dietary potassium include:

  • Cantaloupe
  • Honeydew melon
  • Bananas
  • Orange juice
  • Dried fruits
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Beets
  • Squash
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Potatoes
  • Coconut water
  • Tomatoes
  • Dairy
  • Chicken
  • Salmon
  • Salt substitutes

Medications

Certain medications can prevent your kidneys from eliminating potassium properly. Other medications, such as some high blood pressure treatments, also contain potassium that can lead to hyperkalemia. This is especially risky if you have kidney disease and can’t get rid of excess potassium in your body. 

Hyperkalemia signs and symptoms

Hyperkalemia can be asymptomatic, especially when it’s mild or even moderate. But according to Medscape, high blood potassium level symptoms can include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle paralysis
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Altered sensation, such as skin tingling
  • Slow heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Decreased reflexes

Hyperkalemia side effects

If left untreated, hyperkalemia complications can be life-threatening. The most severe effects of high potassium include abnormal heart rhythms,also known as arrhythmias, which can cause heart attack and cardiac arrest. Even milder cases of hyperkalemia can cause damage to your heart, especially if they remain undiagnosed and untreated for a long period of time.

A simple blood test can be used to determine your blood levels of potassium. Your doctor is more likely to order this test if you have a risk factor for hyperkalemia, such as kidney disease. If you have symptoms of hyperkalemia, your doctor will also ask about your medical history, any medications you take, and your diet.

You should also make sure to mention any supplements you’re taking, even if they’re natural. Muscle-building supplements and certain herbal remedies can increase your blood potassium levels. Some natural ingredients that can raise potassium levels include:

  • Milkweed
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Lily of the valley
  • Noni juice
  • Alfalfa
  • Dandelion
  • Hawthorn berries
  • Nettle
  • Horsetail

The good news is that hyperkalemia can be corrected through different treatments; however, these need to be prescribed and carried out by trained medical professionals. The sources of your high potassium levels will also have to be identified and corrected to prevent future problems. You should always seek medical assistance immediately if you’re experiencing hyperkalemia symptoms.

Check out STDWatch.com now to learn more about many other health topics.

Sources

High potassium (hyperkalemia): Causes, prevention and treatment - kidneyfund.org

Potassium - hsph.harvard.edu

Hyperkalemia (High Potassium) - my.clevelandclinic.org

What is Hyperkalemia? - kidney.org

Hyperkalemia - emedicine.medscape.com


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