What are the causes of high potassium levels?

Updated November 21, 2016

Potassium is a metallic element that’s vital to the proper operation of living cells. Besides helping to regulate muscle tissue, potassium is involved in digestion. It’s also involved in metabolism and maintaining the balance between chemical and electrical body processes (homeostasis). However, having too much potassium in the bloodstream, a condition known as hyperkalemia, is a concern that needs addressing. High potassium levels can cause muscle cramps, nausea, frequent urination, diarrhoea, dehydration, irritability, confusion, paralysis and other painful symptoms.

Kidney Damage and Diabetes

Because the kidneys are responsible for removing excess potassium, hyperkalemia is mostly because of kidney problems where the kidneys aren’t able to do their job of excreting potassium. Disorders such as lupus nephritis, transplant rejection and chronic renal failure can damage kidneys, causing high potassium levels. When dialysis treatments are shortened or omitted, potassium levels can build up to unsafe levels, leading to heart problems and even death. Because diabetics have weakened kidney capacity, type 1 diabetes can make them prone to high potassium levels. When this problem is compounded with a lack of insulin, both fluid and potassium can get into the bloodstream, causing high potassium.

Adrenal Dysfunction

Adrenal dysfunction is another reason for high potassium. Located next to the kidneys, the adrenal glands secrete aldosterone, a hormone causing the kidneys to excrete potassium in urine. Therefore, any malfunction of the adrenal glands can lead to a problem in high potassium. Addison’s disease is a typical disorder causing adrenal dysfunction.


Trauma alone isn’t enough to cause a problem with high potassium. However, when trauma is coupled with another medical problem, it can lead to excess potassium. Trauma to tissues can result in cells releasing potassium. Surgeries, burns, gastrointestinal bleeding, tumours, comas, injuries and hemolytic conditions in which blood cells burst are some examples of traumas which can lead to high potassium levels. When red blood cells die, they release potassium into the bloodstream. Normally, excessive potassium is emitted through the kidneys. However, when the kidneys aren’t able to work properly, it can cause a surplus of potassium in the bloodstream.

Substance Abuse

Abusing alcohol and drugs can cause muscle fibres to break down, resulting in potassium being released in the bloodstream, causing a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. This condition involves the breakdown of skeletal muscle tissue, leading to damaged muscle cells breaking down in the bloodstream. In some cases, kidneys can be damaged, even resulting in kidney failure.


Different medicines can increase potassium in the bloodstream. ACE-inhibitor blood medications are a good example. Other medications that cause too much potassium may include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, lithium, blood-thinning medicines and calcium channel blockers.

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