What are the effects of high potassium levels?

Potassium is an essential nutrient used by the body to help maintain muscles and organs, including the heart. Under normal circumstances, the body regulates this mineral in the bloodstream, using the kidneys to filter out any excess, but several factors can lead to high potassium levels. Outward symptoms of this condition may be mild and include sudden weakness, fatigue, or nausea. This makes it even more dangerous, because high potassium levels can cause a fatal heart attack without warning. Doctors often check the levels of patients at risk, such as those with kidney disease or taking potassium supplements.


High potassium levels, also called hyperkalemia, cause systemic cell failure. This can cause symptoms such as hyperventilation, nausea, and unexplained changes in pulse rate. These symptoms are very nonspecific, making the condition very difficult for a medical professional to diagnose without blood or kidney tests. Often there are no observable symptoms at all.

A person with undiagnosed hyperkalemia could simply collapse from heart failure without warning. If immediate steps are not taken to reduce the amount of potassium in the body, the condition can be fatal. Fortunately, most people at risk of developing high levels of this mineral are already under the care of a medical professional for another condition, and should have their blood potassium levels tested regularly.

Potassium and Health

Most foods, particularly fruits like bananas and avocados, naturally contain potassium. Small amounts are distributed to all cells in the body, including blood cells. Removing excess potassium from the blood is one of the main functions of the kidneys; In a healthy individual, it will be excreted as waste. Some medical conditions and treatments can hinder this process, causing the body to retain more of the mineral than it needs.

Definition and causes of high levels

In a healthy adult, the potassium level should be between 3.5 and 5.0 mEq/L, which is a measure of the concentration in a given amount of blood. Levels above 5.1 are considered dangerous, and levels above 6.0 constitute an emergency requiring immediate medical treatment. However, medical professionals rarely check a patient's potassium levels unless they are being treated for a condition such as kidney disease.

Due to the role of the kidneys in controlling the amount of different chemicals in the body, kidney disease or malfunction is one of the most common causes of high potassium levels. Some medications can also interfere with the body's ability to process and excrete this mineral. Sudden illness or trauma can occasionally cause blood cells to release potassium into the bloodstream, resulting in hyperkalemia. Unfortunately, this can also make a blood test inaccurate if the cells break when the blood is drawn.

In some cases, a person's diet can also cause this condition. Salt substitutes, many of which are used by heart patients, often include potassium chloride, which resembles table salt and tastes similar. However, even in these cases, fatal levels will rarely build up unless the patient also has undiagnosed kidney or digestive problems.


Patients at risk of hyperkalemia should avoid salt substitutes as well as foods with high potassium levels. It is possible to "leach" or remove the mineral from vegetables by soaking them in water for long periods of time. Certain medications, such as baking soda and diuretics, can also help lower high potassium levels in the blood.


Emergency care for high potassium levels may include IV glucose or insulin, which will reduce the amount of potassium in your bloodstream. Calcium can help minimize the effect of the mineral on the heart. Hemodialysis, in which blood is filtered by a machine outside the body, is one of the most reliable treatments.

deliberate use

Legal jurisdictions that practice lethal injection as a form of capital punishment make intentional use of hyperkalemia. Chemicals used in the execution process include potassium chloride, which is considered a humane way of shutting down the heart; This compound is also used in some euthanasia devices. Less controversial, the chemical is sometimes used in heart surgery to stop the heart when a procedure cannot be performed while it is beating.

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