Potassium is present in all body fluids, but most potassium is within your cells, with only a very small amount in the serum or plasma component of the blood. If potassium goes too low or too high, your health may be impaired. An abnormal concentration can alter the function of the nerves and muscles; for example, in extreme cases you may experience heart rhythm disturbances or the heart muscle may even lose its ability to contract.
How is the sample collected for testing?
A blood sample is taken by needle from a vein in the arm.
Is any test preparation needed to ensure the quality of the sample?
No test preparation is needed.
How is it used?
Blood tests are performed to diagnose concentrations of potassium that are too high (hyperkalaemia) or too low (hypokalaemia). The most common cause of hyperkalaemia is kidney disease, but many drugs can decrease the amount of potassium excreted from the body and result in this condition. Hypokalaemia can occur if you have severe diarrhoea and vomiting, due to loss of potassium and dehydration. Potassium can also be lost through your kidneys in urine; in rare cases, potassium may be low because you are not getting enough in your diet. Drugs can cause your kidneys to lose potassium, particularly diuretics ('water pills'), resulting in hypokalaemia. Once your doctor discovers the reason for the too-high or low potassium concentration in the blood, it can be treated.
When is it requested?
Blood potassium concentrations are routinely measured as part of the clinical investigation of many diseases. It is measured in those who take diuretics or heart medications, and in the investigation of high blood pressure and kidney disease. It is also used to monitor patients on kidney dialysis or diuretic therapy, and patients receiving intravenous therapy on a drip.
What does the test result mean?
A raised blood potassium concentration is called hyperkalaemia. This may indicate the following health conditions:
- kidney disease
- Addison's disease
- tissue injury
- excessive intravenous potassium intake (in patients on a drip)
Certain drugs can also cause hyperkalaemia in a small percent of patients. Among them are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as ibuprofen); beta-blockers (such as propanolol and atenolol), angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors (such as captopril, enalapril, and lisinopril), and potassium-sparing diuretics (such as triamterene, amiloride, and spironolactone).
A low blood concentration of potassium is called hypokalaemia. and may occur in a number of conditions, including:
- diarrhoea, and
- insufficient potassium intake (this is rare).
If you have diabetes, your potassium concentration may fall after you take insulin, particularly if your blood glucose levels have been out of control for a while. Low potassium is commonly due to 'water pills' (diuretics); if you are taking these, your doctor will check your potassium level regularly.
Is there anything else I should know?
The way that your blood is taken and handled may cause the potassium concentration in the sample to be falsely high. If you clench and relax your fist a lot while your blood is being collected, this can make potassium concentration in the blood rise. If blood comes out of your veins too fast or too slow, the blood cells can burst and release potassium into the blood, giving a falsely raised potassium result. Some tubes that are used to collect blood sample into contain potassium salts as a preservative. If your blood sample is collected into one of these tubes by mistake, the potassium concentration in the sample will be falsely high.
Potassium can also be elevated if the specimen takes a long while to travel from your GP surgery to the laboratory.
If there are any questions as to how your blood was collected, your doctor may request that the test be repeated before starting any treatment.
What are appropriate treatments for the common causes of low potassium (hypokalaemia) and high potassium (hyperkalaemia)?
What are some good dietary sources of potassium?
Is there an over-the-counter test I can use to check my potassium levels?
Would a sports drink help with my electrolyte levels?