What can cause high levels of potassium in the blood?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Relatively few people develop high levels of potassium in the blood, since the kidneys are normally quite effective in clearing this mineral from the bloodstream. A normal blood potassium measurement is 3.7 to 5.2 milliequivalents per liter.

High potassium or, as doctors call it, hyperkalemia, can occur for several reasons. Problems with the kidneys, such as kidney failure or glomerulonephritis, can elevate potassium in the bloodstream. So can taking medications that cause the kidneys to hold on to potassium. These include potassium-sparing diuretics such as spironolactone (Aldactone, generic) and triamterene (Dyrenium, generic); ACE inhibitors; angiotensin-receptor blockers (ARBs); and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Two other causes of high potassium include using a salt substitute that contains potassium or taking a potassium supplement.

Treating high potassium depends on the severity and the cause. Severe hyperkalemia requires emergency treatment, since too much potassium in the blood can cause lethal heart rhythm problems. Milder cases are usually treated by halting medications that elevate potassium, adopting a low-potassium diet, and treating underlying conditions such as kidney or adrenal disease.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.