What is hyperkalemia?

Hyperkalemia happens when potassium levels in a person’s blood are higher than normal.

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 may include:

  • 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, the patient may have hyperkalemia. Hyperkalemia is often diagnosed because the patient already has a kidney disorder. A kidney disorder decreases the kidney’s ability to get rid of potassium it does not need. Because of this, doctors 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
  • Medications called cation exchangers that absorb and get rid of potassium through the gut

Intravenous calcium is usually given in hyperkalemia to stabilize the heart to try to prevent irregular heart rhythm if potassium levels are dangerously high. 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 for patients to 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, elderly patients in hospitals, and those who abuse drugs have an increased risk of high potassium levels.

How can high potassium be prevented?

High blood potassium levels can be prevented if disorders are treated that might cause hyperkalemia. If one of these disorders exists, the blood potassium levels must be watched closely by a nurse or doctor. Potassium supplements should not be taken if a person’s kidneys are not working properly. People with hyperkalemia should follow a diet low in potassium. A dietician can be consulted to help plan low-potassium meals.

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 healthcare provider to monitor potassium levels in the blood, and should also follow a low-potassium diet under the direction of a healthcare provider. If the following possible symptoms of hyperkalemia exist, call the emergency room or 911:

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

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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: 10/19/2016…#15184