Everyone needs potassium. It is an important nutrient that helps keep your heart healthy and your muscles working right. But did you know that too much potassium can be dangerous, especially if you have kidney disease? It can cause a condition called “hyperkalemia.” The good news? There are steps you can take to help keep your potassium levels within normal range. If you think you are at risk for hyperkalemia, speak with your physician on ways to lower your potassium levels. Additionally, below are some things you need to know.
Who is at risk?
Although your body needs potassium, having too much in your blood can be harmful. It can lead to serious heart problems. Having too much potassium in your body is called “hyperkalemia.” You may be at risk for hyperkalemia if you:
Have kidney disease. It is the job of your kidneys to keep the right amount of potassium in your body. If there is too much, healthy kidneys will filter out the extra potassium, and remove it from your body through urine. However, when kidneys do not work well, they may not be able to remove enough potassium. This means that potassium can build up in your blood to harmful levels.
Eat a diet high in potassium. Eating too much food that is high in potassium can also cause hyperkalemia, especially in people with advanced kidney disease. Foods such as melons, orange juice, and bananas are high in potassium.
Take certain drugs that prevent the kidneys from losing enough potassium. Some drugs can keep your kidneys from removing enough potassium. This can cause your potassium levels to rise. Discuss all medicines that you take with your doctor. Do not stop taking any medicine on your own.
Taking extra potassium, such as a salt substitute or certain supplements.
Have a disorder called “Addison’s disease,” which can occur if your body does not make enough of certain hormones. Hormones are chemicals produced by different glands and organs, including the kidneys, to trigger certain responses in your body.
Have poorly controlled diabetes.
Experience a serious injury or severe burn.
How do I know if I have high potassium?
A simple blood test can find the level of potassium in your blood. If you are at risk, be sure you ask your healthcare provider about a blood test for potassium.
Many people with high potassium have few, if any, symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they are usually mild and non-specific. You may feel some muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, nausea, or other unusual feelings. High potassium usually develops slowly over many weeks or months, and is most often mild. It can recur. For most people, the level of potassium in your blood should be between 3.5 and 5.0, depending on the laboratory that is used.
If high potassium happens suddenly and you have very high levels, you may feel heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, or vomiting. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical care. If you have these symptoms, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
There are options
That’s the good news! If you have high potassium – or are at risk for getting it – speak to your doctor about the various options you have to manage your potassium levels. It’s important you tell your doctor about all the medicines you are taking including over-the-counter drugs, herbals and supplements. To help keep your potassium levels within normal range, your doctor may recommend the following:
Following a low-potassium diet, if needed. Eating too much food that is high in potassium can cause problems in some people, especially in people with kidney disease. Ask your healthcare provider or dietitian how much potassium is right for you. Eating too much can be harmful, but having too little can cause problems, too. Some people may need a little more; others may need less.
Try avoiding certain salt substitutes. Certain salt substitutes are high in potassium. Most people with kidney disease should not use them.
Avoiding herbal remedies or supplements. They may have ingredients that can raise potassium levels. In general, people with kidney disease should not take herbal supplements. If you have any questions about them, ask your healthcare provider.
Taking water pills or potassium binders, as directed by your healthcare provider. Some people may also need medicine to help remove extra potassium from the body and keep it from coming back. This may include:
Water pills (diuretics) help rid your body of extra potassium. They work by making your kidney create more urine. Potassium is normally removed through urine.
Potassium binders often come in the form of a powder. They are mixed with a small amount of water and taken with food. When swallowed, they “bind” to the extra potassium in the bowels and remove it. You must follow the instructions carefully when taking potassium binders. For example, potassium binders may interfere with how other drugs work if you take them at the same time. Potassium binders are not for use in children.
Following your treatment plan carefully if you have diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, or any other serious condition. Following your treatment plan will help you keep your potassium levels in the healthy range.