What is the significance of increased serum potassium levels?

Updated July 18, 2017

Increased serum potassium levels can cause significant health problems. The causes are varied. Potassium is an important electrolyte found inside and outside of the cells in the body. Potassium regulates heart rate and rhythm, and also controls muscle and nerve function. An increased serum potassium level is known as hyperkalemia.


Maintaining normal potassium levels in the body is important to maintain proper electrical activity of the heart, as well as normal digestive and nervous system activity. If serum potassium levels become severely elevated, it can cause the heart to stop beating. Abnormal heart rhythms can occur as the result of hyperkalemia.


Hyperkalemia may be a sign of an underlying disease. Any disease that interferes with normal elimination of potassium through the kidneys can cause increased serum potassium levels.

Causes of Elevated Serum Potassium Levels

Serum potassium levels can increase in response to kidney disease, medication use, adrenal gland disorders and dehydration. The most common cause of hyperkalemia is kidney disease. Medications that might cause elevated serum potassium levels include blood pressure medications known as ace inhibitors or ARB's, fluid pills that are "potassium sparing", and anti-inflammatory medications (NSAID's).


Symptoms of elevated serum potassium levels include muscle weakness, palpitations, EKG changes and tingling. When symptoms of hyperkalemia occur, potassium levels may already be dangerously high.


Severe illness can displace potassium from the cells into the bloodstream, elevating serum potassium levels. Diabetics with uncontrolled blood sugars who become dehydrated, burn and trauma victims, patients with tumours, and patients with muscle damage from medications, drug and alcohol abuse can experience hyperkalemia. Destruction of muscle cells is known as rhabdomyolysis. Kidney stones can also cause elevated serum potassium levels. Treatment of elevated serum potassium levels depends on the cause. The underlying disorder must be addressed. Severely elevated serum potassium levels require hospitalisation during treatment. Patients with hyperkalemia are monitored closely for dangerous heart rhythm disturbances. Elevated serum potassium levels are measured by a simple blood test.


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About the Author

Kathleen Blanchard is a registered nurse, with more than 10 years of experience in cardiovascular health, emergency room and ICU. She writes professionally for and Blanchard is currently employed as a senior case manager and has held certification as a critical care registered nurse (CCRN), advanced trauma life support (ATLS), and advanced cardiac life support (ACLS).