Not many people are aware that having too much of certain minerals in the body can also prove to be harmful. For example, having too much potassium in the blood. Potassium is an essential mineral and electrolyte that our body needs to carry out many functions. Potassium is especially required for the smooth functioning of the nerves, cells, and muscles of the body, including the heart. So while potassium is necessary for the body, having too much of the nutrient can prove to be damaging. High potassium in the blood is known as hyperkalemia. Often, people are unable to recognize the symptoms of hyperkalemia, and the condition remains untreated, which can prove to be life-threatening in some cases. So what are the signs and symptoms of hyperkalemia? Let’s take a look.
Potassium is an essential mineral that is needed by the body for carrying out various functions. Potassium can be found in many foods, including fresh vegetables and fruits.(1,2,3) A normal blood potassium level should be between 3.5 and 5.0 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).(4) The recommended amount of potassium that should be consumed daily is around 4,700 milligrams (mg).(5)
However, some people may be having a higher intake of potassium, and some are also taking potassium supplements while also having a high potassium diet. Other examples could also include a person taking a medication that causes the kidneys to hold on to the excess potassium, allowing the potassium to build up in the bloodstream.
Your potassium level can also go up if you have a kidney-related condition, such as diabetes or chronic kidney disease.(6) This makes it difficult for the kidneys to filter out the extra potassium from the bloodstream.
Having high potassium can be a dangerous condition because it can potentially affect the muscles that control your breathing and heartbeat.
This can cause complications like irregular heart rhythms, shortness of breath, and even paralysis.(7) This is why it is essential that we recognize the signs and symptoms of high potassium at the earliest. While many people do not experience any symptoms of hyperkalemia, but when the symptoms do occur, they usually include the following.
5 Common Symptoms of Hyperkalemia
Tingling and Numbness
Having excess potassium in the blood is known to affect nerve function. Potassium is needed by the body as it helps the nerves fire off the signals to the brain. However, when there is too much potassium in the bloodstream, the nerves are not able to do this properly. Over time, this may cause neurological symptoms such as tingling, or pins and needles’ sensation or numbness in your limbs. It is most common to experience these symptoms in your hands and/or feet.(8)
Having excess potassium in the bloodstream can have an adverse effect on your heart muscles and also on the other muscles of the body. It is possible to develop muscle weakness or muscle fatigue because of hyperkalemia. Even doing simple activities like walking can make you feel overwhelmingly tired.
Due to high potassium, there is a chance that the muscles lose the ability to function correctly, causing muscle exhaustion. It is also common to experience a dull but continuous pain in the muscles. Many people often tend to ignore this, thinking it is a result of tiredness. Keep in mind that it is common to feel like you have completed an extremely strenuous exercise or activity, even though you might have only done some light work.(9) Muscle cramps are also a common symptom of hyperkalemia.
Irregular Heartbeat or Arrhythmia
One of the more severe side effects of hyperkalemia is the risk of having an irregular heartbeat, a condition known as arrhythmia.(10)
Arrhythmias happen when high potassium causes damage to the muscles that control your heart.
An irregular heartbeat is when your heart beats either too slow or too fast. This can cause chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, and can even lead to severe complications like heart failure.(11)
Heart palpitations make you feel like your heart skipped a beat and is beating too fast. It may also feel like your heart is racing, or there is a flutter in your chest. However, this feeling sometimes is not just restricted to the chest. Many people also report feeling such palpitations in their throat and neck.
If you are experiencing a problem with your heart rhythm, you may also feel like there is a tight pressure in the chest, moving to your neck and arms. Other heart-related symptoms may also include a persistent heartburn or indigestion, dizziness, and a cold sweat. If you experience any such symptoms, it is essential that you seek medical assistance immediately.(12)
Shortness of Breath
Another symptom of having high potassium in the blood is feeling shortness of breath. This symptom is usually observed when hyperkalemia starts to already affect the muscles that control your breathing. Due to the damage caused by high potassium, the heart’s ability to pump blood is reduced, which means that the lungs are not receiving enough oxygen. This makes it difficult to catch your breath, and you may feel a tightness in your chest.
In severe cases of high potassium, it may even feel like you are suffocating. If you experience this, call your doctor or 911 to seek medical assistance at the earliest.
Nausea and/or Vomiting
High potassium is also known to adversely impact your gastrointestinal health. Some people with high potassium are known to experience nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain or cramps. Hyperkalemia is also known to cause diarrhea.
If you are experiencing the symptoms of hyperkalemia, it is essential that you contact your doctor at the earliest. Your doctor will order a blood test to confirm the high potassium blood levels and then discuss the treatment options for hyperkalemia.
For some people, decreasing the levels of high potassium involves cutting down on potassium in your diet. This means avoiding or restricting certain types of high potassium foods. Your doctor may recommend that you consult a dietitian who can help you draw up a meal plan.
Along with following a low potassium diet, your doctor may also prescribe a diuretic for stimulating urination in order to flush out the excess potassium from the body.(13)
Your doctor may also prescribe a potassium binder, which is a class of medications that binds to excess potassium in the bowels. The drug makes the extra potassium leave the body through the stool.
Your doctor will also take down your medical history as certain medications for hyperkalemia may cause potassium to build up in the bloodstream. These include medicines like ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers that are commonly used to treat hypertension.(14)
Your doctor may adjust your medication for treating hyperkalemia for some time. You may be advised to stop a potassium supplement if you are on one and drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.
Hyperkalemia can prove to be a severe and even life-threatening condition if left untreated. This is why it is important to monitor your potassium intake and keep your potassium levels within a moderate and healthy range. Both too much and too little potassium can be dangerous for your health, especially if you have an underlying kidney condition or diabetes. Ask your doctor or a dietitian for recommendations on what kind of diet you should be following to keep the intake of potassium within the right level.
- Lester, G.E., Jifon, J.L. and Makus, D.J., 2010. Impact of potassium nutrition on food quality of fruits and vegetables: A condensed and concise review of the literature. Better Crops, 94(1), pp.18-21.
- Weaver, C.M., 2013. Potassium and health. Advances in Nutrition, 4(3), pp.368S-377S.
- He, F.J. and MacGregor, G.A., 2001. Beneficial effects of potassium. Bmj, 323(7311), pp.497-501.
- National Kidney Foundation. 2020. What Is Hyperkalemia?. [online] Available at: <https://www.kidney.org/atoz/content/what-hyperkalemia> [Accessed 28 October 2020].
- Ods.od.nih.gov. 2020. Office Of Dietary Supplements – Potassium. [online] Available at: <https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Potassium-HealthProfessional/> [Accessed 29 October 2020].
- Hollander-Rodriguez, J.C. and Calvert, J.F., 2006. Hyperkalemia. American family physician, 73(2), pp.283-290.
- Charles, G., Zheng, C., Lehmann-Horn, F., Jurkat-Rott, K. and Levitt, J., 2013. Characterization of hyperkalemic periodic paralysis: a survey of genetically diagnosed individuals. Journal of neurology, 260(10), pp.2606-2613.
- Tihanyi, B.T., Ferentzi, E., Beissner, F. and Köteles, F., 2018. The neuropsychophysiology of tingling. Consciousness and Cognition, 58, pp.97-110.
- Moran, R., 2020. Disorders Of Potassium: Hypokalemia And Hyperkalemia – Cancer Therapy Advisor. [online] Cancer Therapy Advisor. Available at: <https://www.cancertherapyadvisor.com/home/decision-support-in-medicine/pediatrics/disorders-of-potassium-hypokalemia-and-hyperkalemia/> [Accessed 29 October 2020].
- Ettinger, P.O., Regan, T.J. and Oldewurtel, H.A., 1974. Hyperkalemia, cardiac conduction, and the electrocardiogram: a review. American heart journal, 88(3), pp.360-371.
- Parham, W.A., Mehdirad, A.A., Biermann, K.M. and Fredman, C.S., 2006. Hyperkalemia revisited. Texas Heart Institute Journal, 33(1), p.40. Crespo-Leiro, M.G., Barge-Caballero, E., Segovia-Cubero, J., González-Costello, J., López-Fernández, S., García-Pinilla, J.M.,
- Almenar-Bonet, L., de Juan-Bagudá, J., Roig-Minguell, E., Bayés-Genís, A. and Sanz-Julve, M., 2020. Hyperkalemia in heart failure patients in Spain and its impact on guidelines and recommendations: ESC-EORP-HFA Heart Failure Long-Term Registry. Revista Española de Cardiología (English Edition), 73(4), pp.313-323.
- Sica, D.A., 2004. Diuretic‐related side effects: development and treatment. The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, 6(9), pp.532-540.
- Palmer, B.F. and Clegg, D.J., 2017. Diagnosis and treatment of hyperkalemia. Cleve Clin J Med, 84(12), pp.934-42.