Salt Substitute Health Risks

Salt substitutes consist of potassium and chloride, two necessary elements in the body. People without kidney problems excrete excess potassium in the urine, but people with damaged kidneys cannot excrete the extra potassium, which builds up in the body. Excess potassium can have significant side effects, so do not use salt substitutes without discussing them with your medical practitioner.

Salt substitutes can be dangerous for people with kidney disease. (Image: rimglow/iStock/Getty Images)

Who Uses Salt Substitutes?

People who retain fluid if they consume too much salt or who have high blood pressure, often want to use salt substitutes. Unfortunately, many of the same health conditions that lead people to choose salt substitutes also react badly to excess potassium. Diabetics, for example, who often have high blood pressure, also often have kidney damage. People with liver damage who retain large amounts of abdominal fluid, called ascites, also often develop kidney problems. If you do not have kidney problems but still want to keep your sodium intake under the recommended 2,400 milligrams per day, ask your doctor about the benefits of using either a light-salt -- half sodium and half potassium chloride -- or a salt substitute which replaces sodium with another mineral, such as potassium or magnesium.

Mild Side Effects

Potassium chloride does not taste exactly like salt. It makes your mouth water like salt does, but it has a bitter aftertaste. Other mild side effects of potassium chloride include nausea or stomach upset, mild diarrhea and mild tingling in your hands and feet.

Serious Side Effects

Serious side effects occur when potassium, including that from a salt substitute, builds up in your body. Symptoms can include an irregular heartbeat, muscle weakness or feeling limp, numbness and tingling around your mouth and in your hands and feet and confusion or anxiety. You may develop continuous nausea or vomiting, pain in your legs, severe stomach pain or blood in your stools or vomit. Notify your doctor immediately if you develop these side effects. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, you would have to consume 18 grams of dietary potassium to produce adverse side effects. If you eat a normal diet, with or without salt substitutes, you could not consume this amount of potassium. In fact, LPI asserts no reports exist to date to indicate any adverse effects in healthy individuals from excessive dietary intakes of potassium.

Life-Threatening Side Effects

Your kidneys remove excess potassium from your blood and excrete it in your urine. However, potassium-sparing medications, such as diuretics prescribed to treat high blood pressure or heart failure, medications to treat heart disease, diabetes and chronic kidney diseases, salt substitutes with high levels of potassium or potassium supplements can exceed your kidneys ability eliminate the excess potassium, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Elevated potassium levels - hyperkalemia -- can cause your heart to beat irregularly or very slowly. In rare cases, this can lead to cardiac arrest and death. Severe hyperkalemia requires hospital treatment with intravenous calcium, glucose and insulin. Patients also might need dialysis to remove excess potassium.

Recommended Dietary Intake

Eating a normal diet, with or without salt substitutes, that does not exceed the Institute of Medicine's recommended daily intake of 4.7 grams of potassium for adult females and males, would not place you in danger of needing dialysis to remove excess potassium. The IOM estimates most adult American women consume about half the recommended daily intake for potassium. Adult men consume a slightly higher amount of potassium than women do.

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