The human body has several intricate processes that maintain normal potassium and calcium levels in the blood. When organ damage, acute illness or chronic illness interrupts these processes, potassium and calcium levels may increase. Doctors refer to high potassium levels as hyperkalemia, while they refer to high calcium levels as hypercalcemia.
The basic metabolic panel blood test allows doctors to identify elevated levels of potassium and sodium in the blood. This blood test also checks the levels of sodium, creatinine, blood urea nitrogen, glucose, chloride and carbon dioxide. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that normal potassium levels range from 3.7 to 5.2 mEq/L (milliequivalent per liter), while normal calcium levels range from 8.5 to 10.2 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter).
Causes of high potassium levels in the blood include blood transfusion, kidney failure, hyperaldosteronism, red blood cell destruction, metabolic acidosis, crushed tissue injury, Addison’s disease and respiratory acidosis. Some drugs also increase the amount of potassium in the blood. They include succinylcholine, histamine, epinephrine, ACE inhibitors, heparin and diuretics. Medical causes of increased blood calcium levels include Addison’s disease, HIV/AIDS, hyperparathyroidism, multiple myeloma, hyperthyroidism, sarcoidosis and Paget’s disease. Medications that cause high calcium levels include lithium, thiazide drugs and tamoxifen.
Elevated potassium and calcium levels both have risks. Since potassium controls nerve impulse transmission and muscle contractions, high potassium levels play a role in abnormal heart rhythm. The Mayo Clinic reports that high calcium levels cause kidney damage, osteoporosis, increased risk for kidney stones, abnormal heart rhythm and dysfunction of the nervous system. Severe hypercalcemia leads to confusion, coma and even death if not treated quickly.
The treatment used for hyperkalemia and hypercalcemia depends on the severity of the condition and the underlying cause. The Merck Manual of Health & Aging indicates that doctors treat high potassium levels with the administration of drugs that increase potassium excretion or block the absorption of potassium. Rapid treatment for severe hypercalcemia reduces the risk of complications. Intravenous calcitonin and biphosphonates decrease the amount of calcium released in the bloodstream. Removal of the parathyroid gland results in lower calcium levels if hypercalcemia occurs due to excess parathyroid hormone in the blood.
Special diets for people at risk for hyperkalemia and hypercalcemia prevent dangerous levels of these substances from building up in the blood. The renal diet limits the intake of potassium, sodium, protein and phosphorus in people who have kidney disease. People with a risk of high potassium levels should also avoid high-potassium foods and potassium supplements. The National Cancer Institute indicates that people with an increased risk for hypercalcemia should drink plenty of fluids, exercise normally and reduce or eliminate the use of drugs that lead to high calcium levels.