Potassium is a vital nutrient that you can’t live without. But you can get too much of a good thing. High levels of potassium in the blood, a condition called hyperkalemia or high K, can lead to serious health problems.
Most of the time, there are no early warning signs of hyperkalemia. But in some cases, it can cause a variety of symptoms, including digestive issues like nausea.
Read on to take a closer look at nausea and other symptoms of hyperkalemia and signs that you need to see your doctor.
All the cells in your body need potassium to function. Typically, when you have too much potassium, your kidneys get rid of the excess. But if your kidneys aren’t functioning well, that excess potassium can build up in your bloodstream.
This can affect nerve and muscle function throughout the body. It can even affect cardiovascular and respiratory function.
It may not be obvious that your potassium blood levels are high. Some people don’t experience any symptoms at all. Others may have mild and rather vague symptoms, which may include:
- muscle weakness
- muscle pain
If your blood potassium levels stay high, symptoms may worsen over time. Because symptoms can come and go, most people are unaware that they have hyperkalemia until it’s discovered via routine blood work.
In some cases, hyperkalemia isn’t caught until it leads to a dangerous complication, such as:
- cardiac arrythmia
- heart attack
- cardiac arrest
- kidney failure
When hyperkalemia leads to problems with nerves and muscles, it can affect the digestive tract. If you have high potassium, you may experience a general sick-to-your-stomach feeling or symptoms, such as:
- abdominal pain
Potassium levels should fall in the range of about 3.6 to 5.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). If your potassium level is above 5.0 mmol/L, it may be related to hyperkalemia. Levels above 6.0 mmol/L are considered severe.
Some conditions may raise your risk for developing high potassium. That includes kidney disease, as the kidneys are tasked with keeping potassium in balance. This risk is even higher if you also:
- take medications that increase potassium
- have a high-potassium diet
- use salt substitutes
- take dietary supplements that are high in potassium
Other conditions that can contribute to high potassium are:
- Addison’s disease
- heart failure
- liver disease
- unmanaged diabetes
You can develop high potassium levels when you use certain medications that can stop the kidneys from removing excess potassium. These include:
- angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- potassium-sparing diuretics
- renin angiotensin aldosterone system (RAAS) inhibitors
- some chemotherapy drugs
Treatment varies, depending on whether you’re at risk of hyperkalemia, have mild to moderate hyperkalemia, or are in the midst of an acute attack.
Treatment involves managing any underlying conditions and switching off of any problematic medications. Controlling hyperkalemia should help resolve any nausea or other symptoms you may experience.
Ongoing management may include medications to help your body get rid of excess potassium. Your doctor may prescribe:
- diuretics, which help your kidneys remove potassium through your urine
- potassium binders, which help your body flush out excess potassium via your stool
Have a discussion with your doctor before switching to a low-potassium diet. Too little potassium is also dangerous, so you need your doctor’s input and regular monitoring when altering your potassium intake.
Some foods that are high in potassium include:
- fruits, fruit juice, and dried fruits, including apricots, bananas, and cantaloupe
- vegetables such as spinach, potatoes, and squash
- legumes such as lentils, kidney beans, and soybeans
- low or nonfat dairy, like milk and yogurt
Meat, fish, and poultry also contain some potassium, though they’re also good sources of protein to include in your diet.
Your doctor can provide a comprehensive list of foods to eat and avoid when monitoring your potassium levels. You can also ask for a referral to a dietitian to learn more about getting the right balance of potassium and other vital nutrients for optimal health.
Treating acute hyperkalemia
An acute attack of hyperkalemia requires lifesaving measures, which may include:
- cardiac monitoring
- dialysis to help remove potassium from the body
You may also require intravenous (IV) treatment, such as:
- diuretics (if you’re not on dialysis)
- sodium bicarbonate
These measures can help get your body’s electrolytes back in balance.
No matter what your symptoms are, there’s no way to know your potassium levels without having your blood tested.
If you have a condition such as kidney disease, heart disease, or diabetes and develop new symptoms, see your doctor right away. Remember to mention all the medications and supplements you take, both prescription and over the counter.
Severe hyperkalemia is a life threatening event. Get immediate medical help if you have sudden:
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- muscular weakness
Hyperkalemia is a condition in which you have too much potassium in your blood. When your kidneys are functioning normally, they remove excess potassium. So, it’s not common to develop hyperkalemia unless there’s a problem with your kidneys.
While weakness, fatigue, and nausea are potential symptoms of hyperkalemia, the condition may not cause any symptoms until potassium levels become dangerously high.
The only way to know your potassium levels is with a blood test. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor if you have signs or symptoms of hyperkalemia to get proper testing and treatment.