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Too Much Potassium In Your System: Dealing With Hyperkalemia

Medically reviewed by Regina Victoria Boyles, MD · Pediatrics

Written by Hazel Caingcoy · Updated Feb 05, 2023

Too Much Potassium In Your System: Dealing With Hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia is a condition wherein a person has too much potassium in their system. Potassium is essential to the body. It is needed for the body to function properly, especially in the cardiovascular and nervous systems. However, too much potassium can be life-threatening and can cause serious medical problems such as abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).

Normally, an average person’s potassium falls between 3.5 and 5.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A person with hyperkalemia can have a potassium level that goes above 5.5 mmol/L.

Risk factors for hyperkalemia

Anyone can have hyperkalemia but people with the following conditions are more prone to developing the disease:

  • Chronic Kidney Disease – Kidney function is deteriorating. This may occur over several months or years.
  • Diabetes – Inability of the body to control blood sugar levels.
  • Addison disease – The glands found on the kidneys (adrenal glands) are not producing enough hormones.
  • Hemolytic anemia – The bone marrow is not producing healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells break down more quickly than they are replaced.
  • Congestive heart failure – Fluid is slowly building up inside the heart causing it to pump inefficiently.

People who have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as those who use drugs and drink too much alcohol are also at risk of developing hyperkalemia.

Causes of hyperkalemia

The following may cause an overabundance of potassium in the body:

  • Kidney disease – The kidney fails to filter out excess potassium due to not functioning properly.
  • Medications – Medications linked to hyperkalemia include blood pressure drugs, heparin, NSAIDs, and even antibiotics.
  • High potassium diet – When a person eats a lot of food and supplements containing potassium, potassium may build up in the blood.
  • Dehydration – When the body is not receiving enough fluids, potassium can build up in the blood.
  • Severe injury – When a person is suffering from a severe injury, rhabdomyolysis occurs. Rhabdomyolysis is a syndrome wherein proteins, electrolytes, and myoglobin leak into the system causing complications in the kidney.

Symptoms of hyerkalemia

During the early stages, symptoms of hyperkalemia are usually mild and easily mistaken for other conditions. Over several months or weeks, symptoms worsen. High levels of potassium can cause problems in the heart and other parts of the body.

Hyperkalemia symptoms include:

  • Muscle weakness, spasms/twitches
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irregular heartbeat or pulse
  • Chest pain, palpitations
  • Trouble breathing, shortness of breath
  • Fatigue


The doctor will check for any physical manifestations of hyperkalemia. They may also ask about the patient’s medical history and lifestyle practices. Tests needed for the diagnosis of hyperkalemia include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) – Doctors may perform an ECG to confirm any abnormalities in the heartbeat, which is usually a symptom of hyperkalemia.
  • Blood tests – A blood test, specifically a serum potassium test, will indicate if there are abnormal levels of potassium in the blood.
  • Urine test – The urine test will check for any abnormalities in the kidney’s function. Poor kidney function may result in hyperkalemia.


The goal of hyperkalemia treatment is to lower potassium levels in the blood. Because  hyperkalemia is caused by underlying health conditions, treating these conditions may be key to lowering potassium levels.

Depending on the cause of the increased level of potassium, treatment may include:

  • Dietary Changes – Removing some of the food and supplements that have high potassium content can improve symptoms. However, people must not entirely eliminate potassium from their diet, as potassium is still essential to the body.
  • IV therapy – If potassium levels are too high, an IV infusion with calcium is administered to protect the heart.
  • Albuterol – Albuterol is an asthma medication that can be inhaled to lower potassium levels.
  • Water pills – Water pills, also known as diuretics, promote urination to eliminate the excess potassium through urine.
  • Potassium binders – Patients may take potassium binders in powdered form together with food. The powder binds with excess potassium and leaves the system through the stool.
  • Dialysis – Kidney failure is often the cause of hyperkalemia. Dialysis manages kidney failure, allowing the kidneys to process the excess potassium.
  • Medication management – Some medications, especially blood pressure medicine, can raise potassium levels. Doctors may ask the patient to discontinue the use of those medications, lessen the dosage, or recommend alternatives.
  • Key takeaway

    Hyperkalemia is a condition wherein potassium levels in the blood are too high. This causes problems in different parts of the body.

    Hyperkalemia is often caused by the kidney’s inability to process excess potassium in the blood. It can be difficult to diagnose during its early stages since it has very mild symptoms. Lowering one’s potassium level is key to treating people with this condition.

    Learn more about Kidney Disease here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Regina Victoria Boyles, MD


    Written by Hazel Caingcoy · Updated Feb 05, 2023

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