A healthy body needs potassium for normal functioning of the heart, muscles, and nerves. Hyperkalemia (high potassium) is typically a symptom of another problem. Potassium levels are monitored while a patient is being treated for a kidney condition or heart problem, for instance. An EKG, which measures electrical activity in the heart, can indicate high potassium levels. Although only small amounts of potassium should be present in the blood, a blood test will reveal if levels are too high.
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Some medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure, for instance, can cause the kidneys to retain potassium rather than filter it out through urine, according to an article published by Penn State University. Kidney failure could therefore indicate high potassium levels.
Hyperkalemic paralysis is caused by a hereditary genetic mutation that affects about one in 200,000 people, according to the National Institutes of Health. The condition typically begins early in childhood and is characterized by extreme muscle weakness. Although the episodes are temporary, they can increase in frequency as the patient ages, until about age 25. Attacks can be triggered after periods without food, during rest following exercise, by fatigue, or by eating a lot of potassium-rich foods.
A heart attack or irregular heartbeat can be indicative of high potassium levels in the bloodstream. When a person is in trauma from an injury, or has major tissue destruction, such as from a burn, surgical procedure or chemotherapy, the damaged cells release high levels of potassium. If the potassium is not filtered out, the body’s electrical system can react with a cardiac event.
Often, according to Chemocare.com, a chemotherapy information website sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic, hyperkalemic patients will have no signs or symptoms at all.