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What Makes Potassium Levels Rise?

By Matthew Fox, MD

The body's cells, particularly those in the muscles and nerves, need proper concentrations of charged minerals. These minerals, including potassium, are called electrolytes. If potassium levels rise too high, you can experience muscle and nerve problems. Your heart can beat erratically and even stop. Several mechanisms cause potassium to rise. Your doctor should diagnose and recommend treatment for a high potassium disorder.

Kidney Problems

Kidney functions include filtering the blood. The filtering process regulates many blood components, including potassium. Kidney damage impairs the filtration of blood and can cause potassium levels to rise. Kidney problems are frequently caused by damage from diabetes and hypertension. Other causes include toxins, a dysfunctional immune system and infection. Inherited disorders can also interfere with the functions of the kidneys.

Adrenal Problems

The adrenal glands are located above the kidneys. They synthesize several hormones, including those involved in potassium regulation. The strongest hormone in regard to potassium levels is aldosterone. Deficient levels of aldosterone can increase potassium. This condition is called Addison's disease, and is most commonly caused by destruction of the adrenal glands by the immune system.


Certain medications can increase your potassium. Spironolactone causes the kidneys to retain potassium. This medication is used to lower the blood pressure, especially in conjunction with other medications that can lower potassium, as the effects can balance out. Other medications that can increase potassium include ACE inhibitors, NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, the antibiotic trimethoprim and some medications used to suppress the immune system for organ transplant.

Release from Cells

Cells contain high concentrations of potassium relative to the blood. Certain conditions can cause the potassium to leak out of the cells. Trauma to the muscles or excessive muscle use can cause a condition called rhabdomyelisis. This is the breaking or bursting of muscle cells, which releases potassium into the blood. High acid levels in the blood also cause the potassium to rise.


A large intake of potassium can cause levels to rise as well. If the kidneys, adrenal glands and other organs are working properly, excessive potassium in the diet is unlikely to make the levels rise because the extra potassium will be absorbed slowly to be eliminated by the kidneys. High oral intake of potassium can raise the levels, however, particularly cases of disease or those on medications. High intravenous intake can rapidly increase the potassium level and cause death.

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