Potassium is an essential electrolyte, which is a mineral that your body needs to function correctly. This mineral is particularly important for your nerves and muscles. All of your muscles need potassium, including your heart. Healthy kidneys flush excess potassium out of your body.
While potassium is indeed important, getting too much can be just as bad or worse than not getting enough of the nutrient. 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 (mmol/L) of blood. A potassium level higher than 5.5 mmol/L is critically high, and a potassium level over 6.0 mmol/L can be life-threatening. This condition is dangerous, and requires prompt medical attention to prevent potential complications.
The most common cause of high potassium is kidney failure. When your kidneys fail, they can’t remove extra potassium from the body. This can lead to potassium buildup.
Another possible cause of high potassium is heavy alcohol or drug use, which can cause your muscles to break down. This breakdown can release a high amount of potassium into your blood from your muscle cells.
Overusing potassium supplements or taking certain chemotherapy drugs can also increase your levels of potassium to above the normal range.
Certain kinds of trauma can raise your potassium levels as well. In such cases, extra potassium is leaked from your body cells into the bloodstream. Burns, injuries, heart attack, and even drug overdoses can cause these effects.
High potassium may also be linked to certain health conditions, such as:
- type 1 diabetes
- Addison’s disease
- internal bleeding
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 have:
- fatigue or weakness
- a feeling of numbness or tingling
- nausea or vomiting
- problems breathing
- chest pain
- palpitations or skipped heartbeats
In extreme cases, high potassium can cause paralysis and heart problems. If your potassium levels are too high, your heartbeat can become irregular and you can have heart failure. 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. If you have extremely high potassium levels, you’ll need to be hospitalized until your levels are back to normal.
Your doctor will routinely perform blood tests during your annual checkup or if you have recently started a new medication. Any abnormalities in your potassium levels will show up on these tests.
It’s important to have regular checkups because you may not be aware you have high potassium levels until you start developing symptoms.
Usually, treatment for high potassium levels aims to help your body get rid of the excess potassium quickly 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. You might be given gluconate to reduce the effect that potassium has on your heart.
Your doctor might also prescribe diuretics, which are pills that cause you to urinate more. Diuretics will help your kidneys get rid of excess potassium. Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor might recommend one or more of the following types of diuretics:
- loop diuretics
- potassium-sparing diuretics
- thiazide diuretics
Each type of diuretic targets a different part of the kidneys.
In some cases, you might be given a resin to be taken orally. Resin binds with potassium, allowing it to be removed from your body during your bowel movements.
In addition to medical treatments, you can also help alleviate the symptoms of high potassium levels at home.
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 high in potassium include:
- sweet potatoes
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 commercial 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 shouldn’t take when you have high potassium levels. Alfalfa, nettle, and dandelion can increase your potassium levels and should be avoided.
With prompt intervention, high potassium can be treated. Since symptoms are difficult to detect in the early stage, it’s important to get regular blood tests. Your results will help your doctor choose the treatment plan that’s right for you. If your potassium levels are slightly elevated and you don’t have any others symptoms of hyperkalemia, then your doctor may choose to monitor your condition and order a follow-up test. Dialysis and hospitalization may be required if kidney failure is suspected.
The best way to avoid high potassium is to take steps to ensure your blood levels remain stable.