Hyperkalemia: an Abnormally High Level of Potassium


Potassium is an important electrolyte necessary to the proper function of the human body. It’s responsible for the function of nerve and muscle cells; however, too much potassium can be dangerous.

Hyperkalemia is a higher than normal level of potassium in the blood. Mild cases may produce no symptoms and can be easily treated. But severe cases of hyperkalemia that are left untreated can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, which can be fatal. Potassium, a key mineral, is essential to normal cell function, including heart muscle cells. Foods serve as the source of the body’s potassium. It’s critical to maintain the correct balance of potassium levels to ensure proper bodily functions. Primary responsibility for maintaining the body’s proper total potassium content, the kidneys balance potassium intake with potassium excretion. If potassium intake exceeds the kidneys’ ability to remove it, or if kidney function becomes impaired, too much potassium can accumulate and hyperkalemia may develop.

Including moderate amounts of potassium-containing foods in your diet will help to maintain the proper levels of the mineral within your body. Foods in which potassium is found include vegetables, fruits, and dairy products. Vegetables and fruits, such as potatoes, tomatoes, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, beans and bananas are good potassium sources as is seafood, such as clams and salmon and dairy products, such as yogurt. 

Those at greatest risk for developing hyperkalemia are people with diabetes, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, or who take medications that interfere with potassium balance, such as certain blood pressure-lowering drugs. Others at increased risk for the condition are those with HIV and certain other infections and people whose alcoholism or significant drug use break down muscle fibers, releasing potassium.

Hyperkalemia may be difficult to diagnose, particularly in the absence of symptoms. When symptoms are present, they may include nausea, muscle weakness, diarrhea, irritability, weak or irregular pulse, numbness, or abdominal cramping. Frequently a hyperkalemia diagnosis must be based on clinical information, such as a history of kidney failure or the use of medications that are known to cause hyperkalemia.

Dietary management can help to prevent potassium levels above a normal range. Discuss with your provider any possibility of your increased risk for developing hyperkalemia. He or she may suggest limiting or avoiding the intake of such foods as tomatoes or tomato sauce, avocados, asparagus and cooked spinach or fruits such as nectarines, bananas, honeydew, prunes and raisins or other dried fruit.

To treat hyperkalemia, in some cases, medications can be given to remove potassium from the intestines. Emergency treatment may also include kidney dialysis in the event of deteriorating kidney function. Your provider may advise that you stop or reduce potassium supplements and stop or change the dosage of certain medicines for heart disease and high blood pressure. It’s important to follow your provider’s instructions about management of any medications.

If your diet includes significant amounts of foods containing potassium or if you have symptoms consistent with hyperkalemia, be sure to consult your provider to identify the source of any bodily imbalances and develop a treatment plan.



Ithaca Primary Care

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