What Is the Connection between Potassium and Acidosis?

Mary McMahon

Acidosis can affect the amount of potassium in a patient’s blood serum, causing it to become unusually high or low. Patients develop acidosis when the acid and base balance of the body is disrupted because the lungs or kidneys are not functioning properly. Normally they regulate internal pH by oxygenating the body and excreting unnecessary compounds in urine. People can develop acidosis because of respiratory problems, kidney disease, endocrine disorders, and other issues that interrupt normal metabolism.

Patients develop acidosis when the acid and base balance of the body is disrupted because the kidneys are not functioning properly.
Patients develop acidosis when the acid and base balance of the body is disrupted because the kidneys are not functioning properly.

One connection between potassium and acidosis is the tendency for serum potassium levels to reflect the type of acidosis the patient has. A technician can draw a sample of the patient’s blood to determine how much potassium is floating freely through the system, circulating to cells. This sample can also be used to measure other compounds in the blood which may provide more information about the patient’s condition.

A blood draw may help determine how much potassium is floating freely in the patient's blood stream.
A blood draw may help determine how much potassium is floating freely in the patient's blood stream.

Some forms cause potassium to rise in the blood serum. This occurs because of a net movement from cells to the bloodstream in an attempt to maintain stable pH. It is also possible to see the reverse with potassium and acidosis, where the blood becomes hypokalemic; this means that there is not enough potassium in circulation. This occurs with failing kidneys that excrete potassium instead of conserving it.

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A lack of potassium can cause leg cramps.
A lack of potassium can cause leg cramps.

In cases where a patient appears to have acidosis, an awareness of the link between potassium and acidosis can be important. This can help the care provider decide which tests to order and how to read the results. The best treatment option can depend on why the patient’s blood chemistry is abnormal; the patient might need respiratory support to boost oxygenation, for example, or dialysis to take over for failing kidneys that cannot filter metabolic byproducts properly. Labs also consider the connection between potassium and acidosis when reporting results, and may make note of any particular findings they want to draw to the attention of the person who ordered the test.

Low levels of potassium in the blood may result in extremely weak muscles, making it difficult for patients to walk.
Low levels of potassium in the blood may result in extremely weak muscles, making it difficult for patients to walk.

For patients, it can also be important to consider the connection between potassium and acidosis. Low serum potassium levels do not necessarily mean that a patient should immediately start taking a supplement. It is necessary to find out why the levels are abnormal and to approach treatment with this in mind. Sometimes increasing intake can resolve the problem, while in others, it may only increase the load on failing kidneys and could lead to further problems for the patient.

Stomach cramps may result from a lack of potassium.
Stomach cramps may result from a lack of potassium.

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