Potassium is needed for cells to function properly. You get potassium through food. The kidneys remove excess potassium through the urine to keep a proper balance of this mineral in the body.
If your kidneys are not working well, they may not be able to remove the proper amount of potassium. As a result, potassium can build up in the blood. This buildup can also be due to:
- Addison disease -- Disease in which the adrenal glands do not make enough hormones
- Burns over large areas of the body
- Certain blood pressure lowering drugs, most often angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers
- Damage to muscle and other cells from certain street drugs, alcohol abuse, untreated seizures, surgery, crush injuries and falls, certain chemotherapy, or certain infections
- Disorders that cause blood cells to burst (hemolytic anemia)
- Severe bleeding from the stomach or intestines
- Taking extra potassium, such as salt substitutes or supplements
High potassium level is a problem in which the amount of potassium in the blood is higher than normal. The medical name of this condition is hyperkalemia.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms.
Tests that may be ordered include:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG)
- Potassium level
- Have been prescribed extra potassium
- Have long-term (chronic) kidney disease
- Take medicines to treat heart disease or high blood pressure
- Use salt substitutes
If the cause is known, such as too much potassium in the diet, the outlook is good once the problem is corrected. In severe cases or those with ongoing risk factors, high potassium will likely recur.
Complications may include:
- Heart suddenly stops beating (cardiac arrest)
- Kidney failure
There are often no symptoms with a high level of potassium. When symptoms do occur, they may include:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
- Slow, weak, or irregular pulse
- Chest pain
- Sudden collapse, when the heartbeat gets too slow or even stops
You will need emergency treatment if your potassium level is very high, or if you have danger signs, such as changes in an ECG.
Emergency treatment may include:
- Calcium given into your veins (IV) to treat the muscle and heart effects of high potassium levels
- Glucose and insulin given into your veins (IV) to help lower potassium levels long enough to correct the cause
- Kidney dialysis if your kidney function is poor
- Medicines that help remove potassium from the intestines before it is absorbed
- Sodium bicarbonate if the problem is caused by acidosis
- Some water pills (diuretics)
Changes in your diet can help both prevent and treat high potassium levels. You may be asked to:
- Limit or avoid asparagus, avocados, potatoes, tomatoes or tomato sauce, winter squash, pumpkin, and cooked spinach
- Limit or avoid oranges and orange juice, nectarines, kiwifruit, raisins, or other dried fruit, bananas, cantaloupe, honeydew, prunes, and nectarines
- Avoid taking salt substitutes if you are asked to eat a low-salt diet
Your provider may make the following changes to your medicines:
- Reduce or stop potassium supplements
- Stop or change the doses of medicines you are taking, such as ones for heart disease and high blood pressure
- Take a certain type of water pill to reduce potassium and fluid levels if you have chronic kidney failure
Follow your provider's directions when taking your medicines:
- DO NOT stop or start taking medicines without first talking to your provider
- Take your medicines on time
- Tell your provider about any other medicines, vitamins, or supplements you are taking
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your provider right away if you have vomiting, palpitations, weakness, or difficulty breathing, or if you're taking a potassium supplement and have symptoms of high potassium.
Mount DB. Disorders of potassium balance. In: Skorecki K, Chertow GM, Marsden PA, Taal MW, Yu ASL, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 18.
Seifter JL. Potassium disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 117.