Potassium is an essential nutrient, but it's possible for you to have too much buildup in your body. High blood potassium, known as hyperkalemia or hyperpotassemia, can be a sign of kidney problems or be related to other health issues. Don't panic, though — false positives are also possible.
If your blood test shows a level of potassium of 5.7 mmol/L, it's indicative of hyperkalemia. This is an abnormally high level of potassium and can be dangerous. You should definitely talk to your doctor, but don't panic: Potassium levels need to reach 6.5 or higher to be considered life-threatening.
What is Hyperkalemia?
Potassium is an essential mineral helps your body's nerve and muscle cells in your body to function. The National Institutes of Health recommend most female adults get 2,600 milligrams each day, while male adults should aim for 3,400 milligrams daily.
In general, potassium is excreted by your kidneys, which means that it shouldn't be stored in most healthy people's bodies. However, this nutrient can build up if you have kidney problems, liver disease, congestive heart failure or adrenal insufficiency.
Potassium also has the potential to accumulate if you're taking certain medications, ingesting large amounts of potassium supplements or consuming salt substitutes. Severe dehydration can also cause this issue.
Hyperkalemia, which the Mayo Clinic defines as a high level of blood potassium, can occur if this happens. This condition can be asymptomatic, but it can also cause muscle weakness, heart palpitations or burning, tingling or prickling sensations in your hands and feet. It even has the potential to cause paralysis and even life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias.
Different Severities of Hyperkalemia
The Mayo Clinic says that normal blood potassium levels are considered to range between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). According to a February 2019 study in the Annals of Intensive Care, hyperkalemia is defined as levels of 5.5 mmol/L or above.
Blood potassium levels above 6.0 mmol/L require immediate treatment. Hyperkalemia is considered to be severe and potentially life-threatening when levels rise to 6.5 mmol/L or more.
If you've recently received a blood test that says your potassium is 5.7 mmol/L, you might be concerned — and for good reason. However, if you don't have a health problem that is likely to cause this issue, there's a good chance that your test is a false positive.
The Mayo Clinic says that it could be due to blood cells rupturing when your blood was being taken or even after, in the blood sample that is being tested. Ruptured cells can leak potassium, resulting in a false positive. If your doctor suspects a false positive, they'll simply order a retest.
Ways to Treat Hyperkalemia
If you do end up being diagnosed with hyperkalemia, know that there are many different treatment options available. The National Kidney Foundation and a March 2016 study in the Kidney International Journal say that some common treatment options are:
- Diuretics, which can help your kidneys produce more urine and excrete more potassium
- Potassium binders, which help your body excrete potassium via the gastrointestinal tract
- Dialysis, which is generally reserved for emergency situations
Regardless of the treatment plan chosen, you will likely need to talk to your doctor or dietitian about dietary changes. Avoiding potassium-rich foods and food products is important and can help prevent this problem from occurring again. Starting a low-potassium diet is particularly important if your hyperkalemia is due to an interaction between your medication and diet.
- Dried fruits
This doesn't mean you won't be able to eat these foods at all. However, if you do choose to eat them, you'll have to consume them sparingly and will likely need to eat very small portions.
Make sure you avoid consuming salt substitutes, which are rich in potassium, or taking supplements that contain potassium. Talk to your doctor or dietitian to determine your treatment options and discuss the dietary changes that are best for you.
- National Kidney Foundation: "Potassium and Your CKD Diet"
- Kidney International: "Treatment of Hyperkalemia: Something Old, Something New"
- Annals of Intensive Care: "Management of Hyperkalemia in the Acutely Ill Patient"
- National Institutes of Health: "Potassium"
- Mayo Clinic: "High Potassium (Hyperkalemia)"