Potassium Overdose ---Top 10 Symptoms and Remedies

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Potassium Overdose --Top 10 Symptoms and Remedies

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April 9, 2012

By ALISON TURNER, Contributing Columnist

Do you use salt substitute to lower your blood pressure? Do you take potassium supplements in connection with muscle-building? If so, you could be at risk for potassium overdose.  Whether or not you care to admit it, you may have seen that video on YouTube where someone tries to shove bananas into his mouth until he overdoses on potassium.  Some of us have learned the hard way that you can't believe everything you see on YouTube, but in this case there is some method in the video's madness.  It is possible for us to overdose on potassium, though it usually doesn't happen by cramming bananas into your mouth to impress your friends. 

Excessive potassium in the blood, a condition known as hyperkalemia, is no laughing matter:  hyperkalemia can lead to muscle fatigue, weakness, paralysis, and abnormal heart rhythms, and is potentially fatal if left untreated.   (Potassium overdose is an extreme case of hyperkalemia, though the latter can be just as dangerous).  A study published by the American Association for Clinical Chemistry in 2003 found that approximately 1.3 million Americans had borderline high and high serum potassium. 

How much potassium should we be getting every day, and how much is too much?  Are there other ways to overdose on potassium besides eating too many bananas or other foods rich in potassium?

Why Do We Need Potassium in the First Place? 

Potassium is a mineral that helps nerves and muscles communicate, and aids in moving nutrients in to - and waste out of - our cells.  Additionally, eating enough potassium may help to counteract some of the problems related to sodium and high blood pressure,  as well as reduce our risk of kidney stones and bone loss as we age.   The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science recommends that adults get 4,700mg of potassium every day, which is nearly double what most of us consume. 

To give this some perspective, one cup of cooked spinach has 840 milligrams of potassium, one medium banana has about 450 mg, and 8 ounces of yogurt contains 490 mg.   Eating this daily recommended dose of potassium should keep the level of potassium in our blood from around 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) - however, a level of 6.5 mmol/L or higher is considered a medical emergency which, in the hospital, is most often treated with insulin injections and hemodialysis to remove potassium from the body. 

How Does Hyperkalemia Happen? 

How is it that most of us don't get enough potassium while some of us get way too much?  It is possible to overdose on potassium, though probably from supplements rather than from too many bananas.  A more likely situation is that hyperkalemia occurs from problems with the kidneys and other health conditions.   Unfortunately, excessive potassium in the blood is usually not discovered until the patient gets blood testing for a different condition. 

Here is a list of conditions that may increase your risk for high potassium, and recent studies that suggest ways to prevent or treat certain cases of potassium overdose.

1.  Chronic Kidney Disease and Potassium Overdose:  A Too-Friendly Association?

Our kidneys are chiefly responsible for removing wastes and excess water from the body. To our bodies, excess potassium is a waste.  Chronic kidney disease is the slow loss of kidney function over time, and affects nearly 2 of every 1,000 people in the United States. 

Chronic kidney disease also happens to be one of the most common causes of too much potassium in the blood.   In 2009 a team of researchers and doctors from the Departments of Medicine and Epidemiology and Preventative Medicine at the University of Maryland, and the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, including Maureen Moen with the first,  conducted a study to determine the incidence rate of hyperkalemia in patients with chronic kidney disease, and to determine whether or not the two together are "associated with excess mortality."

The Maryland team collected data from a national cohort of over 200,000 patients with at least one hospitalization and at least one serum potassium record during 2005.  Data showed that 3.2% of these patients experienced "hyperkalemic events," and that "death within one day of a hyperkalemic event was the principle outcome."  They also found that hyperkalemia was higher in patients with chronic kidney disease than in patients without chronic kidney disease.  The report concludes that "the risk of hyperkalemia is increased with [chronic kidney disease]," and its occurrence increases the odds of mortality within 1 day of the event." 

It may be difficult for you to seek treatment for chronic kidney disease and any resulting hyperkalemia, because it may be a long time before you know that you have it. 

In the early stages of chronic kidney disease,you may not have any symptoms, or if you do, your symptoms may be confused for symptoms of a different illness. 

Appetite loss, fatigue, itching, nausea, and unintended weight loss are some of the first symptoms. However, the disease slowly gets worse with time, so that symptoms such as bone pain, numbness in hands or feet, breathe odor, and excessive thirst may develop.  At the final stage of chronic kidney disease the patient will need either dialysis or a kidney transplant. 

Treatments for chronic kidney disease(before, or in addition to eventual dialysis)  generally include controlling blood pressure (usually with medication), lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, following a low fat and cholesterol diet, exercising regularly, and avoiding too much sodium and potassium.

2. Snake Venom, Acute Kidney Failure, and Too Much Potassium?

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