Potassium is an important mineral (ion) in the human body. It plays various roles in muscle and nerve activity, and influences the blood volume and blood pressure. The potassium in our body comes from certain foods like meat, potatoes, beans and fruits among others. It is the most abundant ion in our cells. However, potassium levels outside the cells (in the tissue fluids and blood) is maintained at a lower level than potassium levels inside the cells. The excess potassium in the blood is excreted out in the urine by the kidneys.
What is hyperkalemia?
Hyperkalemia refers to abnormally high potassium levels in the blood. It is medically defined as a condition in which the serum potassium level exceeds 5.3 mEq/L. In hyperkalemia, the potassium in the extracellular fluids (tissue fluids and blood) increases and impairs the normal functions of the cells, especially the muscle cells and the heart cells. Hyperkalemia is a dangerous condition because it can stop heart function and cause death. Men are more prone to developing hyperkalemia than women. The reason for this gender bias is not known.
Symptoms of High Potassium Levels
Hyperkalemia seldom shows any symptoms before the heart gets affected. Some of the symptoms associated with hyperkalemia include:
- Muscle weakness and fatigue
- Irregular or weak pulse
- Rapid breathing
- Palpitations or chest pain
- Sudden collapse due to slowing down of heart
Some of the causes of hyperkalemia includes :
- Kidney failure. Kidneys maintain normal potassium levels in the blood by excreting any excess potassium. Therefore, kidney failure or dysfunction is the main cause of hyperkalemia.
- Excessive potassium intake in foods can cause hyperkalemia if the person also has kidney dysfunction.
- Certain medications (likepotassium-sparing diuretics, blood pressure medicines, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) cause hyperkalemia due to their effects on the excretion of potassium by the kidney.
- Aldosterone hormone from the adrenal gland increases the excretion of potassium in the urine. Therefore, dysfunction of adrenal glands (in Addison’s disease) also results in hyperkalemia.
- Injuries (due to muscle damage, surgery) and burns may release potassium from the damaged cells into the blood, leading to hyperkalemia.
- Severe hemolytic anemia, which causes bursting of red blood cells, may also lead to hyperkalemia.
Treatment of High Potassium Levels
Hyperkalemia requires emergency treatment. Following are the treatment options:
- ECG is conducted to check if heart functions are getting suppressed due to hyperkalemia. Intravenous administration of calcium is recommended to prevent dysfunction of heart and muscles.
- Glucose and insulin are administered intravenously to help lower potassium levels by stimulating potassium intake by cells.
- Dialysis might be required if kidney function is affected.
- Medicines that prevent absorption of potassium from intestines are prescribed.
- If blood pH falls (acidosis), treatment with sodium bicarbonate helps in correcting the pH and reversing the effects of hyperkalemia.
- Any potassium supplements being taken need to be stopped immediately.
- Medicines like ACE inhibitors, angiotensin receptor blockers, and ameloride could cause hyperkalemia. Therefore, these medications should be stopped.
- Loop diuretics (furosemide) might be given to flush out excess potassium in urine.
High Potassium Foods
Although hyperkalemia should be treated medically by a health care professional, certain dietary changes may be helpful. Certain foods are abundant in potassium and should be avoided or eaten in moderation by a person with hyperkalemia. These foods include :
- meat (all meat)
- orange juice
Last Updated: July 25th, 2012 by