Authored by Revere Health

Why Should You Care About the Potassium Levels in Your Blood?

September 15, 2016 | Nephrology

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Why Should You Care About the Potassium Levels in Your Blood?

Potassium is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in ensuring the proper functioning of your body’s cells, tissues and organs. Maintaining the right amount of potassium in your body is a delicate balancing act, and this responsibility falls primarily to your kidneys. Kidneys juggle your potassium intake against your potassium excretion to help regulate the amounts of this important mineral in your blood.
Potassium is also an electrolyte, a substance that conducts electricity in the body. It is crucial to heart and nerve function and plays a key role in skeletal and smooth muscle contraction. But too much of this good thing is just as dangerous as too little.

What is hyperkalemia?

This term describes a potassium level in your blood that’s higher than normal. “Hyperkalemia is a common cause of life-threatening heart rhythm changes, or cardiac arrhythmias,” explains WebMD. “It can lead to an emergency condition called ventricular fibrillation . . .(causing) the lower parts of your heart to flutter rapidly instead of pumping blood.” If left untreated, an extremely high amount of potassium in your blood can cause your heart to stop beating and result in death.
Your nephrologist monitors your potassium level using a blood test. A normal level is 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A blood potassium level higher than 7.0 mmol/L requires immediate treatment, cautions Mayo Clinic.

What are the symptoms of hyperkalemia?

Hyperkalemia can be challenging to diagnose, and the symptoms can be mild. If you notice any of the following symptoms and suspect your potassium level might be high, call your doctor immediately:

  •       Slow or abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias)
  •       Nausea and vomiting
  •       Muscle fatigue
  •       Weakness
  •       Paralysis

What causes hyperkalemia?

High blood potassium is most commonly seen in diseases that involve the kidneys, such as acute kidney failure or chronic kidney disease. Although rare in a general population of healthy individuals, in hospitalized patients, the incidence of hyperkalemia has ranged from 1 percent to 10 percent, with drugs being implicated in the development of the condition in as many as 75 percent of cases. Other causes include:

  •      Type 1 diabetes
  •      Addison’s disease (adrenal failure)
  •      Destruction of red blood cells due to burns or severe injury
  •      Alcoholism or heavy drug use that causes rhabdomyolysis
  •      Blood pressure drugs angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor             blockers (ARBs) and beta-blockers
  •      Antibiotics, including penicillin
  •      Azole antifungals
  •      Excessive use of potassium supplements
  •      Herbal supplements
  •      Heparin, a blood thinner
  •      Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications
  •      Potassium-sparing diuretics


The elderly are at greater risk for hyperkalemia because their kidneys are less efficient at eliminating potassium as they age. Seniors need to be very careful when taking any of the above-mentioned drugs that affect potassium levels. Most of us get all of the potassium we need from a healthy diet rich in vegetables and fruits, so always talk to your nephrologist before taking potassium supplements.
Treatment for hyperkalemia depends on the cause. It may require a low potassium diet, changing medications causing the condition, or using drugs to lower the potassium levels. If kidney disease is the cause, dialysis may be needed to filter potassium from the blood. Dangerously high potassium levels may require emergency care including IV medications.

What is hypokalemia?

As you might guess, this is a condition of too little potassium in the blood. Hypokalemia occurs when the body loses too much potassium in the urine or intestines and is rarely caused by dietary deficiencies, explains the University of Maryland Medical Center. Hypokalemia, like hyperkalemia, can be life-threatening and should always be treated by a kidney doctor.

What are the symptoms of hypokalemia?

Every cell in each system and organ of your body needs the right amount of potassium to function. Sustained low levels can result in:

  •     Generalized fatigue
  •     High blood pressure
  •     Muscle aches and spasms
  •     Tingling and numbness in extremities
  •     Irregular heartbeat or palpitations
  •     Feeling faint or dizzy
  •     Constipation, bloating, abdominal cramping

What causes hypokalemia?

One of the most common reasons for low potassium is a high sodium intake. The more sodium you consume, the more potassium your body excretes. Eating a diet full of high-sodium processed foods is a surefire way to deplete your blood potassium levels.

Medical conditions including vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, Crohn’s disease and malnutrition can also cause potassium deficiency. The loop diuretics commonly used to treat heart failure can also cause a potassium shortage.

Do you have questions or concerns about kidney health? Revere Health Nephrologists are trained kidney specialists with six locations throughout Utah. Our physicians treat a variety of issues including kidney disease, hypertension and kidney stones. We work with your primary care physician to handle your treatment.

Are you concerned about your kidney function? Talk with your primary care physician about seeing a nephrology specialist.


The Live Better Team

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.