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Hyperkalemia: Symptoms and Treatments

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Symptoms of Hyperkalemia

Too much potassium in your blood can affect how your heart works. Symptoms of hyperkalemia can include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythm -- arrhythmia -- that can be life-threatening
  • Slow heart rate
  • Weakness


Diagnosing Hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia can be difficult to diagnose. The symptoms can be mild and may be due to many different health problems.

Your doctor will examine you and listen to your heart beat. You will be asked questions about your medical history, diet, and use of medications. It is important to make sure your doctor knows about all the medicines you are taking, including over-the-counter products such as herbs and other supplements.

Lab tests will be done to check the level of potassium in your blood and urine. Blood test results vary from lab to lab. Your doctor will explain your specific results. Many different factors can affect your potassium level. If your potassium level appears high, your doctor will likely repeat the blood test.

An electrocardiogram, called ECG or EKG, will be done to check for problems with your heart rhythm. This test records your heart's electrical activity.

Not every person with hyperkalemia has changes that can be seen on an ECG. Sometimes, changes that are seen may be mistakenly attributed to another disease.

Treatment for Hyperkalemia

Your doctor will monitor your heart rate and, if needed, recommend treatments to remove the extra potassium from your blood.

Treatment may include:

  • Sodium polystyrene sulfonate to remove potassium via the digestive tract.
  • Water pills to remove potassium via the urinary tract.
  • Insulin and glucose delivered into a vein (intravenously) to quickly move potassium into cells.
  • Dialysis to filter potassium from your blood, used primarily if kidney function is seriously impaired.

Dialysis is rarely done first. It is most often used in those with a life-threatening potassium level who are already receiving the treatment. Calcium delivered into a vein may also be used if there is evidence of heart rhythm abnormalities.

Other treatments depend on the cause of hyperkalemia.

Complications of Hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia is a common cause of life-threatening heart rhythm changes, or cardiac arrhythmias. It can lead to an emergency condition called ventricular fibrillation. In this condition, the lower parts of your heart flutter rapidly instead of pumping blood.

Untreated, an extremely high amount of potassium in your blood can make your heart stop beating, causing death.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 20, 2013
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