High potassium, also known as hyperkalemia, is a condition that occurs when your blood contains too much potassium. According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal range for potassium is between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter of blood or milliequivalents per liter (mEq/L) (Mayo).
Potassium is a type of electrolyte (minerals that your body needs in order to function correctly). Potassium is specifically important to your nerves and muscles. All your muscles need potassium, including your heart.
The most common cause of high potassium is kidney failure. When your kidneys fail, they can’t perform their job of removing extra potassium from the body. This can lead to potassium build-up.
Another possible cause is heavy alcohol or drug use. If you are a heavy alcohol drinker or drug user, your muscles may begin to break down. This breakdown can release a high amount of potassium into your blood from within muscle cells.
You can also raise the levels of potassium in your body above the normal range by overusing potassium supplements or by taking chemotherapy drugs.
Certain kinds of trauma—like being burned—can raise your potassium levels as well.
The symptoms of high potassium depend on the level of the mineral in your blood. You may not experience any symptoms at all. If your potassium levels are high enough to cause symptoms, you may experience:
- fatigue or weakness
- a feeling of numbness or tingling
- nausea or vomiting
- problems breathing
- palpitations or skipped heartbeats
In the extreme cases, high potassium can cause paralysis and heart problems. If your potassium levels are too high, your heartbeat can become irregular. If left untreated, high potassium levels can even cause your heart to stop.
Because of this, it’s important that you see your doctor promptly if you start experiencing any of these symptoms. Extremely high potassium levels will require you to be hospitalized until your levels are back to normal.
Doctors routinely perform blood tests during your annual checkup, or if you have recently started a new medication. Any abnormalities in your potassium levels would show up on these tests. Because of this, it’s likely that your doctor will catch high levels of potassium early on.
However, if you skip regular checkups, you may not be aware of high potassium levels until you start developing symptoms.
Usually, treatment for high potassium levels has two goals—to help your body get rid of the excess potassium and to stabilize your heart.
If you have high potassium due to kidney failure, hemodialysis is your best treatment option. Hemodialysis uses a machine to remove waste from your blood because your kidneys cannot filter your blood effectively.
Drugs may also be used to treat your high potassium levels. Gluconate might be given to reduce the effect that potassium has on your heart.
Your doctor might also prescribe diuretics (pills that cause you to urinate more) to help your kidneys get rid of excess potassium. In some cases, you might be given a resin by mouth. Resin binds with the potassium, allowing it to be removed from your body during your bowel movements.
In addition to medical treatments, you can do to some things at home to help alleviate the symptoms of high potassium levels.
One of the easiest ways to naturally lower your potassium levels is to reduce the amount of potassium in your diet. This means limiting foods and supplements that are high in potassium. Some foods that are potassium-rich include:
- nuts and beans
Some salt substitutes are also high in potassium. When you buy a salt substitute, make sure to avoid any that list KCI (potassium chloride) as an ingredient. Foods that are high in additives—such as manufactured baked goods and sports drinks—are also usually high in potassium.
It may also help if you eat less red or processed meat. Try to drink more water and exercise regularly, too.
You may like to take herbs as a way to treat your ailments. However, there are a few herbs that you should not take when you have high potassium levels. Alfalfa, nettle, and dandelion can actually increase your potassium levels and should be avoided.