Potassium levels are important for a variety of reasons. Potassium is both an electrolyte and a mineral, and it helps to regulate the mineral-water balance in the body as well as the function of nerves and muscles. Potassium is closely related to sodium levels. When sodium levels within the body rise, potassium drops. When sodium levels drop, potassium increases.
Aldosterone, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, also affects the level of potassium in the body. Another factor that can contribute to fluctuating levels of potassium is kidney disease. Certain kidney conditions can compromise the kidneys' ability to regulate potassium. Finally, illnesses that lead to extreme vomiting or diarrhea, such as the flu or food poisoning, can cause your potassium levels to change.
The signs of too much or not enough potassium in the body are similar. Abnormal levels of potassium may lead to muscle weakness and cramps, frequent urination, dehydration, a drop in blood pressure, confusion and problems with the rhythm of your heart. Low levels of potassium are more common than high levels.
Your family physician can check potassium levels through a simple blood test. While the chance of side effects from the blood test is small, some people experience bruising at the testing site or phlebitis. Phlebitis is a condition where the vein that was used to draw blood swells after the procedure. Phlebitis can be uncomfortable, but is easily treated with warm compresses.
If you take any blood thinning drugs, such as warfarin, aspirin or blood pressure medicine, it is important to mention this to the person administering the blood test. These drugs increase the amount of time that it takes for your blood to clot after a blood test. Depending on the reason for the medications, your doctor may recommend that you discontinue their use for several days before the procedure.
Some drugs may have an effect on the outcome of your test. To get an accurate assessment of your potassium levels, tell the person completing your labwork if you are taking potassium supplements, antibiotics, heparin, insulin, glucose or steroids. Medications for high blood pressure and heart disease can also affect the outcome of this blood test. Finally, if you regularly take over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) or laxatives, it is important to make sure this it is noted with your blood test.
Low or high potassium can be a sign of a serious health condition or of a passing medical concern. Regardless of the reason for fluctuating potassium levels, they can do permanent damage to the heart. If you believe that your levels are not in the proper range, a visit to your family physician is required. The blood test that detects problems with potassium is readily available, and results are typically available the following day.