High Potassium Levels: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

November 12, 2012

High Potassium Levels: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

High potassium levels in the blood or hyperkalemia are often a symptom of a serious kidney problem. This is because healthy kidneys regulate potassium levels and normally eliminate any excess. If left untreated, people with high potassium levels can have their hearts suddenly stop beating and die. Others suffer from coordination problems. Causes Healthy adrenal produce a hormone called aldosterone. Among its many functions, aldosterone helps the kidneys to keep normal levels of potassium and sodium in the blood. But if the adrenal glands stops producing aldosterone or the kidneys have problems absorbing aldosterone, then the body’s potassium levels may skyrocket. People suffering from certain ailments or kidney disorders are at high risk of developing high potassium levels. They include people with, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Addison’s disease

  • Severe injury to the kidneys and/or adrenal glands

  • Kidney disease

  • Bleeding in the digestive organs

  • Severe burns

  • Internal organ damage due to poisons, alcoholism or drug addiction

  • Kidney transplants rejected by the host body

  • Tumors of the internal organs

  • Glomerulonephritis, a disease that causes the kidneys to stop filtering blood properly

  • Certain medications that can affect kidneys, such as intravenous potassium and potassium sparing diuretics

  • Blockage of a kidney tube leading to the bladder called an obstructive uropathy

  • Eating too much potassium-rich foods such as processed snacks labeled “low salt” when experiencing kidney problems

Symptoms Unfortunately, most people suffering from high potassium levels do not experience any symptoms. This makes it all the more dangerous. The only way these people discover that they suffer from hyperkalemia is by getting regular blood tests to check for potassium levels. Potassium levels are also checked during complete blood counts or CBCs. People suffering from any kidney ailments should regularly get a CBC. When people do experience symptoms, they often suffer circulation problems, such as:

  • Abnormally slow or weak pulse

  • Sudden changes in the heart rhythm

  • Problems breathing due to heartbeat changes

  • Chronic nausea

  • Suddenly losing consciousness

Anyone experiencing these symptoms that already have been diagnosed with a kidney problem should go to a hospital immediately. The heart may soon stop beating. Treatment Treatment of high potassium levels depends on the cause. Unless the cause is addressed, the person will continue having too much potassium in their blood until he or she dies. Long-term treatment includes diet changes such as eliminating foods with salt substitutes and taking a type of diuretic medication to reduce potassium and water in the body. These medications will usually cause a person to urinate more often than usual. Patients with extremely high potassium levels or experiencing symptoms need hospitalization. The focus will be on stabilizing the heart and then treating the cause of the high potassium levels. The patient will be given an EEG test to check on the heart functions and determine a course of action. Patients may be given intravenous calcium, glucose or insulin in order to regulate blood sugar and kidney function. Some patients may need dialysis but may only need it a few times. Patients with too much fluid in their bodies will be given diuretics. Other patients may be given cation-exchange resin medications that bind with potassium molecules and then leave the digestive system.


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