What is Hyperkalemia?

Individuals who are diagnosed with hyperkalemia have a high level of potassium in their blood. The mild form of this condition is not life-threatening, but it must be treated so that it does not develop into its critical phase. Individuals must have a certain amount of potassium in their blood so the muscles, nerves and heart can function normally. An increased amount of potassium will have a detrimental effect on the heart rhythms and in severe cases, the heart will quit beating.

Common causes of hyperkalemia include kidney failure, taking various medications and heavy use of alcohol.

What are the Symptoms of Hyperkalemia?

Some people who have hyperkalemia will not have any symptoms to warn them of this condition.

Symptoms include

Those who do show signs of symptoms may feel tired, nauseated and weak. There is also the chance of experiencing tingling sensations or numbness in the extremities of the body. As the condition worsens, some people may have chest pains, breathing issues and heart palpitations. Since hyperkalemia often does not exhibit symptoms, a physician can take a blood sample and check the potassium level in the blood.

Hyperkalemia Causes

In looking at the causes of hyperkalemia, it’s important to ensure that the body really is experiencing a spike in potassium levels. Often, the red blood cells may rupture during the drawing and testing, which causes potassium to leak into the sample. Although the patient’s potassium may be normal, the test will present a higher reading. In cases where hyperkalemia is genuine, it’s usually caused by kidney failure or chronic kidney disease.

In other circumstances, hyperkalemia can be the result of excessive alcohol or drug use. Substance abuse can initiate a process known as rhabdomyolysis, which breaks down muscle fibers and releases potassium into the blood stream. Additionally, Addison’s disease, type 1 diabetes, or overusing potassium supplements can lead to the development of this condition.

Other factors responsible for causing hyperkalemia are angiotensin II receptor blockers and severe injuries and burns that destroy red blood cells.

How is Hyperkalemia Treated?

Immediate treatment is necessary to lower the amount of potassium in the blood if the hyperkalemia is severe.

Treatment includes

Individuals who have a mild form of hyperkalemia may be restricted to a low potassium diet and their physician may prescribe certain medications, such as water pills.

A drug called calcium gluconate may be prescribed to steady the abnormal rhythms of the heart. A physician may also prescribe a diuretic medication, which causes frequent urination, and allows the body to get rid of the surplus potassium.

Individuals who have hyperkalemia because of failing kidneys often have hemodialysis as a treatment. This procedure removes the blood from the body, a little at a time, and then runs it through a filter before it is transferred back into the veins.

Hyperkalemia Prevention

In most cases, it’s just not possible to prevent the occurrence of hyperkalemia. Working with one’s physician and pursuing a healthy lifestyle can help slow the progression of underlying illnesses that can cause hyperkalemia to develop. One option doctors suggest for relief of hyperkalemia is a low potassium diet that consists of a daily intake of 2,000 milligrams to 3,000 milligrams, while also eliminating medications that contribute to the patient’s potassium intake.

Additionally, some medications are prescribed to lower dangerously high potassium levels. Water pills can help flush potassium out through the urinary tract, while sodium polystyrene sulfonate works to rid the body of the element through the digestive tract.

In cases where the patient is experiencing hyperkalemia due to kidney disease, dialysis may be the best option for drawing excess potassium from the body. If left untreated, hyperkalemia can lead to heart rhythm changes, cardiac arrhythmias, and other life-threatening blood circulation abnormalities.

Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
January 12, 2018