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Symptoms and Causes of High Potassium in Blood

Updated on January 8, 2018

Copyright 2012 - Kris Heeter, Ph.D.

The electrolyte balance in your body is extremely important for the optimal function your major organs. Too little or too much of key elements or electrolytes can have profound negative effects if gone unchecked.

Potassium (K++) is one of these key electrolytes. It helps regulate your body’s balance of acids and bases and it is essential for keeping the electrical activity of your heart normal. Potassium also is important for protein synthesis and building muscle.

A potassium imbalance, in either direction, can lead so serious medical problems. From a clinical point of view, potassium imbalances are defined as follows:

  1. Too little potassium = Hypokalemia
  2. Too much potassium = Hyperkalemia

What are the symptoms of too much potassium?

There are very few symptoms associated with too much potassium, and it is normally detected through blood tests. However, on rare occasions the following symptoms may indicate the possibility of elevated levels:

  • nausea
  • slow, weak, or irregular heartbeat
  • sudden collapse (related to very low heartbeat)

What happens when there is too much potassium in the blood?

If you have too much potassium building up in your blood, it can be toxic. This is rare, but it can lead to serious health problems with your heart and kidneys if gone unchecked.

Some serious consequences of high potassium in your blood can include: heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, neuromuscular problems and paralysis.

Common causes of hyperkalemia

There are a number of causes that can lead to hyperkalemia. If you have one more more of the following conditions, consult with you doctor and keep an eye on your potassium levels:

  • reduced kidney (renal) function
  • an abnormal breakdown of protein in the body
  • severe infections
  • Addison’s disease
  • excess supplements that contain potassium

Certain medications can also lead to hyperkalemia. The National Institutes of Health lists the following medications that leads to a potassium excess:

  • ACE inhibitors
  • angiotensin receptor blockers
  • spironolactone (Aldactone)
  • amiloride (Midamor)
  • triamterene (Dyrenium)

Strawberries are low in potassium
Strawberries are low in potassium

Hyperkalemia and renal failure

Excess potassium is normally removed from your body through the kidneys. If your kidneys are not working properly, your body starts to go into renal failure and high potassium builds up in your blood.

The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders indicates that one common cause of hyperkalemia is renal tubular acidosis. With this disease, the renal tubes of the kidneys fail to excrete acids into the urine and the blood remains too acidic.

Renal tubular acidosis can either be a genetic disease, or can be caused by other diseases such as lupus or sickle cell anemia.

Additional reading on potassium imbalance

A potassium deficiency ("hypokalemia") can be caused by a number of medicines, medical conditions, foods and drinks. The symptoms of hypokalemia can be mild, but if gone unchecked, they can become serious. Learn what the symptoms and causes of a potassium deficiency are and find out which foods are the best for maintaining healthy potassium levels on a daily basis.

The relationship between acidosis and hyperkalemia

Besides kidney disease or renal failure causing acidosis, cell and tissue damage can lead to acidosis and hyperkalemia.

Normally your kidneys and lungs work to maintain the proper pH (acid-base) balance in the body. But, when acid begins to build up or when bicarbonate is lost through body fluids, metabolic acidosis occurs.

Acidosis can occur through cell or tissue damage -- when damaged, cells can release internal potassium that causes a pH imbalance. Specific examples of cell and tissue damage that can cause acidosis include:

  • burns over large portions of the body
  • tumors
  • damage to muscle or cells from drugs, alcohol abuse, coma, surgery, injury, or some infections
  • some blood disorders (e.g., hemolytic anemia)
  • severe internal bleeding (e.g., in the stomach or intestines)

Apples are a low potassium food
Apples are a low potassium food | Source

Making changes in potassium blood levels through diet

Potassium levels can be regulated to a certain degree through your diet. By being aware of those foods high in potassium versus those that are low, you can work towards restoring a potassium balance if there is not a major underlying disease.

As with any health issue, you should always consult with their doctor before making significant changes in your diet, and you should always disclose any supplements and medications as these can influence the recommended course your doctor may have for restoring your potassium balance.

Foods High in Potassium

Sweet Potatoes
Winter Squash
Tomatoes and related sauces
Lima Beans
Regular potatoes
These are foods to avoid with if blood levels of K++ are high.

Foods low in potassium

Apples (and juice)
Lemons (and juice)
Limes (and juice)
Apricot nectar
Cranberries (and juice)
Papaya nectar
Fruit cocktail
Grapes (and juice)
Apricot nectar
Alfalfa sprouts
Bamboo shoots
Cabbage (canned)
Green beans
Source: The University of Michigan (Medical School) Other processed foods low in potassium include: Bread (unfortified), Crackers, Pasta (unfortified), Plain cake or cookies, Popcorn, Cereals (unfortified), Rice, Margarine, Mayonnaise, Oil


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    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @BlissfulWriter - it's a fun word. As a student in science, it took me for ever to get the prefixes "hypo" and "hyper" straight in my head.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @phdast7 - I'm glad you found in interesting and useful! All is well here and and I hope the same with you!

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 5 years ago from Deep South, USA

      This is an excellent article, well-researched and written so that it's easy to read. Very informative. Voted Up, Useful and Interesting.

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 5 years ago

      I like your informative and scientific Hubs. Because I just learn a new word - Hypokalemia -- the consonant sounds just rolls off the tongue.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Kris - Fascinating hub as usual and so much good information. I never realized that diet could affect potassium levels. I guess I only thought in terms of renal failure. Very Interesting. Hope all is well.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @RTalloni - it's definitely hasn't been on my radar either. I think we all probably tend to worry more about cholesterol and calcium and it's easily not even consider things like iron and potassium.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      I don't think I've ever thought of the possibility of having too much potassium accumulate in the blood, but I'm glad to have the information to keep in mind. Well done hub--thanks.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      @chefsref - thanks for adding to the discussion and that is an excellent point! Regular blood tests are the best way to monitor K++ levels. And in this crazed nation of supplementation (you hit the nail on the head with that description!), it's so important now more than ever to have those tests done to not only to detect a deficiency or but an excess as well.

    • chefsref profile image

      Lee Raynor 5 years ago from Citra Florida

      Thanx for this Kris

      It's useful info. My mother (Age 94) has been diagnosed with low K and it is a challenge to get someone of her age to eat properly. The one thing I might add would be for regular blood tests to determine where we might be deficient. I think we have become a supplement crazed nation but the science is still developing.

    • Pollyannalana profile image

      Pollyannalana 5 years ago from US

      Eating too many bananas could be a death sentence for someone with high potassium, it is much more dangerous and quicker to kill than low. I just bet many graves are full pf people dead from this that was simply called a heart attack.

    • Kris Heeter profile image

      Kris Heeter 5 years ago from Indiana

      Thanks @billybuc. I'm glad to hear it is easy to follow!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great information and you did a wonderful job of writing it so even a dufus like me could understand it!