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The Effects of High & Low Potassium in Humans

By Kimberly Wonderly

Potassium plays a role in every cell, tissue and organ in your body, according to the book, “Fundamentals of Nursing.” Normal levels of potassium in the blood range from 3.7 to 5.0 mEq/L, or milliequivalents of potassium per liter of blood. Levels higher or lower than this can affect the way your nerves conduct electrical impulses, which can negatively affect the body in many ways.

Hyperkalemia And The Heart

High potassium levels, also known as hyperkalemia, have negative effects on your cardiovascular system. As levels increase, your heart rate will slow or become irregular, explains the text “Medical-Surgical Nursing.” Your doctor may order an electrocardiogram, or EKG, to watch for arrhythmias. These arrhythmias can lead to lowered blood pressure. Extremely high potassium levels or untreated hyperkalemia can eventually lead to a fatal arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.

Other Effects of Hyperkalemia

Hyperkalemia can also affect many of your other body systems. As it affects your muscular system, you may feel fatigue, weakness or even paralysis, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Due to decreased nerve conduction, you may notice numbness, tingling or other unusual sensations of your skin, especially on the hands and feet. Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea may occur as hyperkalemia affects your gastrointestinal tract. As the hyperkalemia reaches extreme levels, the weakness of skeletal muscles can cause the respiratory system to fail.

Hypokalemia And The Heart

As with hyperkalemia, low potassium levels or hypokalemia, can also affect the cardiovascular system. Arrhythmias, especially rapid heartbeat, can lead to weakened contractions of the heart, which can weaken pulses and decrease blood pressure, relates “Medical-Surgical Nursing.” Decreased blood pressure can lead to chest pain and dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting upon standing. As hypokalemia increases in severity, the heart can stop beating and death can occur. An EKG of a person with hypokalemia may reveal abnormalities indicting the potential for a heart attack.

Other Effects Of Hypokalemia

When the body has to survive without potassium, it begins to lose function. As your muscles become affected, you may experience constipation, muscle spasms, fatigue, muscle spasms, paralysis and the breakdown of muscle fibers, explains MedlinePlus. Hypokalemia may even cause you to experience excessive thirst, frequent urination and confusion, indicates the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center College of Medicine at Penn State University. You may also experience confusion, anxiety, extreme tiredness and the inability to discriminate hot from cold.

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