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Hyperkalemia Overview

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 10/31/2009

Hyperkalemia is used to describe abnormally-high levels of potassium in the blood. This condition can quickly become life-threatening, so it important that it is diagnosed and treated quickly. Learn about hyperkalemia in this comprehensive guide.

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    Risk Factors

    One of the biggest risk factors for hyperkalemia is reduced kidney function. When kidney function declines, waste products known as creatinine and blood urea nitrogen build up in the blood. People with high levels of creatinine and BUN are at risk for developing high potassium levels. Another risk factor for hyperkalemia is long-term used of angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. These medications are used to treat heart failure and hypertension by relaxing the blood vessels. People over the age of 70, and those who have congestive heart failure, are also at risk for hyperkalemia.

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    Causes

    Abnormal kidney function can cause hyperkalemia because the kidneys lose their ability to maintain the body's electrolyte balance. Adrenal failure can also result in increased levels of potassium in the blood. When the red blood cells are destroyed, potassium can leak into the blood and cause an abnormally-high potassium level. Other causes of high potassium levels include illegal drug use, alcoholism and chronic use of ACE inhibitors.

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    Diagnosis

    High potassium levels may not cause any signs or symptoms until the condition becomes severe. If hyperkalemia progresses, it can cause nausea and abnormal heart rhythms. The pulse may also be too slow or too weak. This condition can be diagnosed with the use of a blood test or electrocardiogram. The simple blood test helps to determine how much potassium is present in the blood. This test requires a blood sample from one of the veins in the arm. The blood sample is sent to a laboratory so a technician can analyze the sample and determine the patient's potassium level. The electrocardiogram can show heart changes caused by high levels of potassium. During this test, an EKG technician applies electrodes to the patient's body and attaches them to wires (leads). The EKG machine records the electrical activity of the heart and creates a printout of the activity. This is reviewed by a physician to determine if there are any heart abnormalities.

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    Treatment

    Treatment for hyperkalemia is based on the underlying cause and the severity of the condition. Medications can be used to remove potassium from the digestive system so that it cannot be absorbed by the intestines. Intravenous glucose and calcium can also be used to reduce potassium levels. If high potassium levels are caused by a long-term medical condition, it may be necessary to restrict potassium intake or take loop diuretics to remove potassium from the body.