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Diseases & Conditions

Hyperkalemia

What is hyperkalemia?

Hyperkalemia is when potassium levels that are higher than normal exist in a person’s blood. Normal levels of potassium in the blood are generally between 3.7 and 5.2 mEq/L (milliequivalents per liter) for adults and 3.4-4.7 mEq/L for children. For adults, the safety range for potassium levels is usually between 3.5 and 5.5 mEq/L. If potassium levels drop below 3.5 or go over 6, that person is no longer within the safety range for potassium blood levels and should speak with a doctor.
Potassium normally helps to:

  • Regulate muscle tissue
  • Metabolize
  • Maintain the balance between electrical and chemical processes in the body

What are the symptoms of high potassium?

A person with high levels of blood potassium may not have any symptoms. However, if symptoms do exist, they typically are:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Slow, weak, or absent pulse

How is a person with high blood potassium diagnosed?

A serum potassium test measures the level of potassium in the blood. If the levels are too high, it may be determined that the patient has hyperkalemia. Hyperkalemia is often diagnosed because the patient already has a kidney disorder. Having a kidney disorder will decrease the kidney’s ability to get rid of potassium it does not need. Because of this, doctors tend to watch potassium levels more closely in patients with kidney disorders.

Electrocardiograms (EKGs) can show changes in the wave pattern that may be linked to hyperkalemia.

How can high potassium levels be treated?

Treatments for high blood potassium levels include:

  • Dialysis
  • Diuretics (water pills)
  • Intravenous (directly into the veins) glucose and insulin

Intravenous calcium is usually given in hyperkalemia to stabilize the heart to try to prevent irregular heart rhythm. A long term treatment would be decreasing the amount of potassium in the diet. Soaking or boiling vegetables and fruits in water can decrease potassium.

**It is important that patients know that cardiac arrest (absent heartbeat) can occur at any time while hyperkalemia is being treated; close monitoring is required during treatment.

What causes high potassium levels?

Hyperkalemia can have a variety of causes:

  • Increased total body potassium
  • Cells releasing extra potassium into the bloodstream
  • Lack of aldosterone, the hormone that helps the kidneys to regulate potassium levels
  • Some medicines, including potassium supplements, can cause hyperkalemia

What are the problems related to having high blood potassium?

The possible problems that have been found in people with hyperkalemia are:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cardiac arrest (heart attack)
  • Changes in nerve and muscle control

Who can get hyperkalemia?

Anyone can get hyperkalemia, but there are some groups who are more at risk. People who have kidney disorders, infants and elderly, patients in hospitals and those who abuse drugs have an increased risk of high potassium levels.

How can high potassium be prevented?

Patients can help prevent high blood potassium levels if they treat disorders that might cause hyperkalemia. If one of these disorders exists, the blood potassium levels must be watched closely by a nurse or doctor. If a person’s kidneys are not working how they should be, that person should not be taking potassium supplements. A diet low in potassium should be followed in a patient with hyperkalemia, and a dietician may be consulted to help plan meals which are low in potassium.

When is the right time to contact a doctor?

A patient who has kidney disease or is taking medications that can potentially increase potassium levels should be closely followed by a health care provider to monitor potassium levels in the blood, and should also follow a low potassium diet under the direction of a health care provider. If the following possible symptoms of hyperkalemia exist, it is best to call the emergency room or 911:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Weak heartbeat
  • Changes in breathing pattern
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea
References

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 3/12/2013…#15184

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