A potassium test checks how much potassium is in the blood. Potassium is both an electrolyte and a mineral. It helps keep the water (the amount of fluid inside and outside the body's cells) and electrolyte balance of the body. Potassium is also important in how nerves and muscles work.
Potassium levels often change with sodium levels. When sodium levels go up, potassium levels go down, and when sodium levels go down, potassium levels go up. Potassium levels are also affected by a hormone called aldosterone, which is made by the adrenal glands.
Potassium levels can be affected by how the kidneys are working, the blood pH, the amount of potassium you eat, the hormone levels in your body, severe vomiting, and taking certain medicines, such as diuretics and potassium supplements. Certain cancer treatments that destroy cancer cells can also make potassium levels high.
Many foods are rich in potassium, including scallops, potatoes, figs, bananas, prune juice, orange juice, and squash. A balanced diet has enough potassium for the body's needs. But if your potassium levels get low, it can take some time for your body to start holding on to potassium. In the meantime, potassium is still passed in the urine, so you may end up with very low levels of potassium in your body, which can be dangerous.
A potassium level that is too high or too low can be serious. Abnormal potassium levels may cause symptoms such as muscle cramps or weakness, nausea, diarrhea, frequent urination, dehydration, low blood pressure, confusion, irritability, paralysis, and changes in heart rhythm.
Other electrolytes, such as sodium, calcium, chloride, magnesium, and phosphate, may be checked in a blood sample at the same time as a blood test for potassium.
Why It Is Done
A blood test to check potassium is done to:
- Check levels in people being treated with medicines such as diuretics and for people having kidney dialysis.
- Check to see whether treatment for too low or too high potassium levels is working.
- Check people with high blood pressure who may have a problem with their kidneys or adrenal glands.
- Check the effects of extra nutrition (total parenteral nutrition [TPN]) on potassium levels.
- Check to see whether certain cancer treatments are causing too many cells to be destroyed (cell lysis). Cell lysis syndrome causes very high levels of some electrolytes, including potassium.