Symptoms and Causes of High Potassium in Blood
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:
- Too little potassium = Hypokalemia
- 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:
- 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 arrhythmias, 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)
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
- 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)
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
Tomatoes and related sauces
Foods low in potassium
Apples (and juice)
Lemons (and juice)
Limes (and juice)
Cranberries (and juice)
Grapes (and juice)