Potassium chloride is one of the most versatile chemical compounds available. It is the ingredient used in most salt substitutes. Medically, the National Institutes of Health writes that it is used as a supplement for people who are potassium-deficient, or intravenously for people who may be dehydrated. Commercially, it is available in multiple departments at home improvement centers. While it is undoubtedly a helpful element, potassium chloride is also dangerous when overused or ingested in toxic concentrations.
According to the Mayo Clinic, hyperkalemia is a condition caused by too much potassium in the blood. The kidneys remove potassium from the bloodstream, but kidney functions are typically reduced in hyperkalemics, according to the National Library of Medicine. There are no specific symptoms of hyperkalemia, as those with the condition have irregular heartbeat, weak pulse and/or nausea. The primary result of hyperkalemia is cardiac arrest.
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Overdosing on potassium chloride or ingesting high concentrations, like those used in ice melters or industrial applications, can cause gastrointestinal distress. According to its material safety data sheet, or MSDS, potassium chloride can cause irritation and vomiting. The National Library of Medicine writes that it can ulcerate the lining of the digestive tract, causing bleeding and pain.
The International Programme on Chemical Safety, or IPCS, reports that renal failure is a result of potassium chloride overdose. The kidneys filter the blood, removing chemicals and impurities. Too much potassium overwhelms the kidneys and poisons them. The resulting shutdown leads to blood toxicity and the potential for cardiac arrest.
Rash and Chemical Burn
Highly-concentrated potassium chloride is known to burn human skin. Simply touching crystals or pellets will not cause a burn, according to the IPCS and its MSDS, as the compound is in a stable state. Potassium chloride is activated when wet. When the human skin comes in contact with the activated chemical, it can burn or ulcerate the skin.
Potassium is a mineral that is essential for the beating of the heart, as well as other important functions within the body. But when our bodies have low levels of potassium, which can occur due to certain medications, disease, a condition called hypokalemia--chronically low levels of blood potassium--and long illnesses where there is a lot vomiting and/or diarrhea. Potassium chloride is a supplement to help make up for low levels of potassium and can have both positive and negative effects on the heart and the body as a whole.
One risk of taking potassium chloride is that instead of simply restoring your potassium levels to a healthy balance in your body, you get too much potassium into your system. It's called hyperkalemia, and though it's certainly treatable, it can be life-threatening. It can lead to heart rhythm irregularities, paralysis and significant muscle weakness. If you start to experience any of those symptoms after you take potassium chloride, be sure to see a doctor immediately and try to bring along the bottle of potassium chloride tables so your healthcare providers will know how much you've had.
Preventing Potassium Loss
Potassium chloride supplements are especially helpful if you are on a diuretic, or "water pill," to treat high blood pressure. One of the possible side effects of a diuretic is potassium loss, and potassium chloride can restore your potassium levels to a healthy range. A normal, consistent amount of potassium in the bloodstream can not only help your heart beat consistently, but it can maintain heart strength and help prevent heart failure, the inability of the heart to beat sufficiently to pump blood throughout the body.
A study published in 2005 in the journal "Hypertension" showed that potassium chloride can help lower blood pressure, which puts less stress on the heart and lowers the risk of a cardiac event, such as a heart attack. While potassium chloride supplementation may not be enough to lower blood pressure in all hypertensive patients, it may be a supplement you should discuss with your doctor, particularly if your blood work shows your potassium levels are low or borderline low.