You often have a blood test with your yearly physical that checks for your potassium levels. If you have any of the conditions mentioned above, your doctor may want you to be tested. The blood sample can check to see whether your potassium levels are in the normal range.
What Is Potassium?
As a nutrient, potassium is found in a number of foods. Some foods with a lot of this mineral include:
- Oranges and orange juice
Potassium is one mineral that plays an important role in controlling the amount of fluid in the body. Another is sodium. Too much sodium -- which the body mainly gets from salt -- leads to the body retaining fluid. This can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and other issues. Potassium balances the effects of sodium and helps keep fluid levels within a certain range.
Your body should maintain a specific amount of potassium in the blood, ranging from 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L).
Why Would I Get This Test?
Your doctor may want you to get a blood test to check for potassium levels if they suspect you’re having health issues like:
- Kidney disease
- High blood pressure
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (a serious complication of diabetes)
- Any condition treated with diuretics (drugs that force the body to shed water and sodium and cause you to pee a lot)
Other terms used to describe this test are:
- BMP (basic metabolic panel)
- Chem 7
- Electrolyte panel
In addition to potassium levels, the test may check your blood for chloride, sodium, and urea nitrogen (BUN).
How Do I Prepare?
Your doctor may ask you not to eat for at least 6 hours before the test, and to drink only water.
They’ll probably want to talk with you about your medical history and any medicines you’re taking. Some medicines may affect the results, so they might advise you not to take them before the test.
To do a test, a lab tech sticks a needle in a vein and takes a blood sample. Sometimes it’s hard to find a good vein, so they will tighten an elastic band around your upper arm and ask you to open and close your hand into a fist. The needle is attached to a tube, which collects the blood specimen.
This usually takes less than 5 minutes.
Blood tests are very common and have very few risks. However, any needle stick may cause bleeding, bruising, infection, or cause you to feel faint. Pay attention to the directions your doctor gives you, including applying pressure to the area and keeping it clean.
What Do My Results Mean?
Depending on the lab, you should get the results back within a few days. (If there’s a lab at your doctor’s office, the results may be returned in less than an hour).
Your doctor will go over the results with you. If your potassium level is high (a condition called hyperkalemia) you may have:
- Kidney disease (the most common cause of hyperkalemia)
- Addison’s disease (when your adrenal glands, which are above your kidneys, are damaged and cannot make enough of an important hormone called cortisol)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rhabdomyolysis (a disease of the muscles often related to drug and alcohol use or muscle trauma)
If your potassium level is low (hypokalemia), you may have:
- Kidney disease
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Folic acid deficiency (Folic acid is an important B vitamin that helps make new cells in your body.)
Hypokalemia may also be caused by:
Sometimes, a blood sample may be poorly taken or poorly tested, which can affect the test results. To make sure of the diagnosis, your doctor might ask you to take a second blood test. Or, they might ask you to take a urine test.
Patients who have already been diagnosed with kidney disease or other ailments may take potassium blood tests regularly.