What is Hyperkalemia (High Potassium Levels)?

Hyperkalemia is a medical condition where the potassium levels are abnormally high. For the muscle cells and nerve cells to function properly, your body requires the right balance of a nutrient called potassium. Normal potassium levels are between 3.5 to 5.0 mmol/L. If your blood potassium level is between 5.1 mmol/L and 6.0 mmol/L, you may have mild hyperkalemia. When your potassium level is between 6.1 mmol/L and 7.0 mmol/L, you may have moderate hyperkalemia. You are said to have severe hyperkalemia if your potassium level is above 7.0 mmol/L. High potassium levels in the bloodstream can be dangerous and lead to serious heart problems.

Most patients with this condition are diagnosed with mild hyperkalemia. However, it is important you seek treatment when you are diagnosed with any form of high potassium levels to prevent the condition from progressing. Severe hyperkalemia can cause cardiac arrest or even death. Potassium is vital for the proper functioning of the heart, muscles and nerves. This nutrient is responsible for controlling the activity of the skeletal muscle, smooth muscles and heart muscle. Potassium also helps in proper transmission of electrical signals in the entire nervous system of the body. Achieving a normal potassium level helps you to maintain a normal heart electrical rhythm.

Signs and Symptoms

Most people with high potassium levels do not show any signs and symptoms. However, if signs and symptoms appear, they are normally mild and not specific. Usually, hyperkalemia that develops slowly with time is likely to produce less signs and symptoms compared with a sudden increase in potassium levels. Sudden hyperkalemia is a life threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Usually, the signs and symptoms of hyperkalemia do not show until potassium level are extremely high at 7.0.

Hyperkalemia may lead to signs and symptoms such as:

  • Weakness
  • Muscle fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Arrhythmias or abnormal heart rhythm
  • Slow heart rate

A weak pulse and slow heart rate are serious signs and symptoms of high potassium levels since it may show an effect on the heart electrical activity.

Causes of high potassium levels

The main cause of hyperkalemia is typically a kidney disorder, medications, and potassium sifting out of the body cell. Using certain types of medications can make it difficult for the kidney to excrete potassium. Also, using some drugs can increase your potassium levels.

The following are drugs which can increase your risk of getting hyperkalemia:

  • Antibiotics such as penicillin.
  • Blood pressure medications such as ACE inhibitors and beta blockers.
  • Blood thinner drugs like heparin.
  • Potassium supplements

Eating too much food that is rich in potassium can also result in hyperkalemia. You may also experience high potassium levels if your kidney is not functioning properly. Potassium is normally absorbed from food and drinks we consume. The kidney is responsible for balancing the amount of potassium in the body by filtering excess potassium through your urine. In case there is kidney disorder, it may result in hyperkalemia. High potassium levels can also occur when the nutrient potassium moves out of the body cell into the blood. There are different conditions, like diabetic ketoacidosis, which can make potassium move out of the body cell into the bloodstream. Insulin is a natural hormone produced by the beta cells, that helps process glucose to be used by the body’s cells for fuel. People with type 1 diabetes rely on insulin therapy so that they can control their blood glucose levels. Without insulin, the body’s sugar level will build up, and it will start to breakdown fat cells for fuel, which may release ketones into the bloodstream. Together with high blood sugar levels, ketoacidosis will cause potassium and fluids to move out of the body cells into the bloodstream. Adrenal gland disease is another major cause of high potassium levels in the bloodstream. The adrenal gland is responsible for secreting hormones like aldosterone and cortisol in the body. Aldosterone is a hormone that stimulates the kidneys to retain fluid and sodium and remove potassium through urination. If you are suffering from adrenal gland disease, it may lead to reduced secretion of aldosterone. This may reduce the amount of potassium removed by the kidney leading to hyperkalemia.

Hyperkalemia Treatment

Before you begin treatment for hyperkalemia, your doctor may need to carry out a few tests. It can be hard to diagnose hyperkalemia because the signs and symptoms are similar to many other health problems. Typically, your doctor will examine you so that they can listen to your heartbeat. Your doctor may ask you questions regarding your diet, medications you are using and your medical history. Make sure you tell your doctor about all medications you are using. Lab tests may be performed to check your potassium level in the urine and blood. If you are diagnosed with high potassium levels, your doctor may prescribe the following treatment:

A low potassium diet

If you have high potassium levels or you are at risk of getting this medical condition, your doctor may advise you to start eating a low potassium diet. In case you are not sure, you can ask your dietitian on how much potassium you should consume every day. Taking too much potassium through food or drinks can be harmful to your body. However, consuming too little potassium can also have detrimental effects on you. Your dietitian may ask you to aim for about 2000 mg to 3000 mg of potassium every day. To stay healthy, it is important you strike a balance between foods that are rich in potassium and high protein foods.


· Water pills

This medication helps people with hyperkalemia to excrete excess potassium from their bodies. Water pills function by helping your body get rid of potassium via urine.

· Diuretics

Patients with high potassium levels may take diuretics to reduce potassium stores by increasing potassium removal via urine.

· Epinephrine

This medication works on the beta 2 adrenergic receptors that are used to lower blood potassium levels by increasing its absorbption into the body’s cells.

· Veltassa

Veltassa is another medication that can be prescribed to patients with hyperkalemia. This medication helps to reduce potassium levels in the bloodstream.

In urgent situations, your doctor may give you insulin and glucose injections to balance your potassium levels. Sodium bicarbonate injections may also be given to promote potassium balance, thus reducing high blood potassium levels.

Disclaimer: Please note that the contents of this community article are strictly for informational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. This article, and other community articles, are not written or reviewed for medical validity by Canadian Insulin or its staff. All views and opinions expressed by the contributing authors are not endorsed by Canadian Insulin. Always consult a medical professional for medical advice, diagnosis, and treatment.