What Is Hyperkalemia?

When you live with chronic kidney disease (CKD), you have a higher chance of forming another condition, hyperkalemia. While hyperkalemia is usually mild, it can sometimes be life-threatening.1,2

Hyperkalemia is a condition where you have too much potassium in your blood. Potassium is an essential mineral that:1

  • Helps to enlarge and shrink your muscles
  • Sends signals through your nerves from your brain to other parts of your body
  • Transports waste out and nutrients into your cells
  • Counteracts salt’s impact on your blood pressure

When your potassium levels get too high, it can result in heart damage or even a heart attack.1,2

Causes and risk factors of hyperkalemia

You are most likely to get hyperkalemia if you have CKD. People living with CKD are 2 to 3 times more likely to get hyperkalemia than those without CKD.1

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CKD stops your kidneys from properly filtering waste from your blood, including when your blood contains too much potassium. Getting high levels of potassium in your diet or through certain medicines can also cause hyperkalemia.1,2

Symptoms of hyperkalemia

Mild hyperkalemia usually develops over time. It triggers vague symptoms that are hard to link to the condition. These symptoms include:1,2

  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Other strange sensations

A severe form of the illness can cause the same symptoms, plus:1,2

  • A heartbeat that is too fast (palpitations)
  • Numbness in your arms or legs
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain

If you have these symptoms, see a doctor right away.2

Diagnosing hyperkalemia

Because hyperkalemia symptoms can be hard to notice, you may only know you have the condition if your doctor orders a blood test. This serum potassium test measures your potassium levels.1

Normal potassium levels are between 3.5 and 5.0 millimoles per liter. If your level goes above 5.5, you are at risk of hyperkalemia. A level above 6.5 raises your chances of heart problems, which means you should get medical help right away.1,2

You may also need an electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG is a test that reveals changes in your heart rhythm. T waves on an ECG show your heart’s resting or recovery rate. If T waves are tall, it could mean you have hyperkalemia.1

Treating hyperkalemia

There are many treatments for hyperkalemia, depending on your potassium levels. They include:1

  • Water pills: Also called diuretics, these pills help your body get rid of too much potassium. You pass the potassium through your urine when you pee.
  • Medicine changes: Your doctor may switch your prescription medicine if there is a chance it can raise your potassium levels. Blood pressure drugs and other kinds of medicines are known to cause potassium levels to rise.
  • Potassium binders: These medicines work by removing potassium through your stool (poop). Your doctor will likely try other treatments first before using a potassium binder.
  • IV therapy: This treatment gets medicine into your body with a shot into a vein (intravenously or IV). The medicines are calcium gluconate to protect your heart and insulin to help transport potassium into your blood cells. You may also be asked to inhale albuterol. Albuterol is an asthma medicine that also works to lower potassium levels. Doctors reserve IV therapy for the most serious cases of high potassium.
  • Dialysis: If other treatments fail to lower your potassium levels or you have kidney failure, your doctor could suggest dialysis. This treatment gets rid of extra potassium in your blood.

This or That

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