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Hyperkalemia, elevated potassium, needs to be taken seriously because it can lead to life-threatening conditions. However, if your doctor tells you your potassium readings are high, it may also be due to a false reading.

As a long-time hypertensive, I'm no stranger to blood tests. When I recently went to have my routine blood work done, the physician's assistant contacted me to tell me that my potassium levels were high and that I should have another blood test within the fortnight. Of course, I was a little shocked, especially when she told me how important it was to come in again, making it all sound extremely serious. I knew it could indicate poor kidney function, which runs in my family, so my thoughts immediately wandered to being stuck to a dialysis machine.

Are you in the same situation? Don't panic immediately. More information should help you get a clearer idea of what hyperkalemia is and how it may affect  you in the future.

What Is Hyperkalemia?

Hyperkalemia is a medical term means elevated potassium levels. Potassium is without a doubt an essential mineral; it keeps your heart, kidneys and other body systems running well, and not having enough potassium can lead to serious health problems like hypertension, heart disease, infertility, stroke, arthritis, digestive disorders, and even cancer. Unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking, abusing alcohol and drugs, being excessively physically active and having eating disorders can all lead to a lack of potassium. These issues are all pretty common. This is why you have probably heard about people taking potassium supplements to bring their levels of the stuff up.

Hyperkalemia is much less discussed, but no less dangerous. Normal blood potassium levels are between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L), and you have too much if you're over that. Having potassium levels of  7.0 mmol/L or higher poses a real risk to your health. As such, it deserves to be taken extremely seriously and requires immediate treatment. More about that later.

Hyperkalemia: Causes And Symptoms

You can usually expect to have high potassium diagnosed during routine blood testing for a preexiting condition or because you're taking medications and your doctor wants to monitor the state of your blood. If you're in this boat, you may not have symptoms at all, or at least not symptoms you can recognize as being caused by hyperkalemia. Your potassium levels may raise over time, causing gradual symptoms you cannot easily pinpoint as well.

If you do  have symptoms, they're likely to include some of the following:

  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Tingling
  • Nausea
  • A slow heartbeat and a weak pulse
My symptoms were definitely there: I had aching muscles and was so tired I frequently went to bed at 8 pm. That's hardly normal.
Hyperkalemia is usually caused by kidney function problems such as acute kidney failure or chronic kidney disease, both scary conditions. They can also be caused by Addison's Disease, being an alcoholic or drug addict, Type 1 diabetes, the breakdown of red blood cells, and even excessive use of (you guessed it!) potassium supplements. Certain medications, like the ACE inhibitors I take for my high blood pressure, can also be culprits.
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