• Defined as >5.5 mEq/L
  • Potassium secretion is proportional to flow rate and sodium delivery through distal nephron
    • Thus, loop & thiazide diuretics cause hypokalmia
  • Most common cause is hemolysis from blood draw (pseudohyperkalemia)

Medication Causes

Alter transmembrane potassium movement

  • β blockers
  • Digoxin
  • Potassium-containing drugs
  • Potassium supplements
  • Salt substitutes
  • Hyperosmolar solutions (mannitol, glucose)
  • Suxamethonium
  • Intravenous cationic amino acids
  • Stored red blood cells (haemolysis releases potassium)
  • Herbal medicines (such as alfalfa, dandelion, horsetail, milkweed, and nettle)

Reduce aldosterone secretion

Block aldosterone binding to mineralocorticoid receptors

Clinical Features

Typically non-specific

Differential Diagnosis


  • Pseudohyperkalemia: hemolyzed specimen, prolonged tourniquet use prior to blood draw, thrombocytosis or leukocytosis
  • Redistribution (shift from intracellular to extracellular space)
  • Increased total body potassium
    • Inadequate excretion: Acute/chronic renal failure, Addison's disease, type 4 RTA
    • Drug-induced: potassium-sparing diuretic (spironolactone), angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE-I), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Excessive intake: diet, blood transfusion
  • Other causes: succinylcholine, digitalis, beta-blockers

Peaked T-waves

Wide-complex tachycardia

Assume any wide-complex tachycardia is ventricular tachycardia until proven otherwise (it is safer to incorrectly assume a ventricular dysrhythmia than supraventricular tachycardia with abberancy)

^Fixed or rate-related


Diagrammatic representation of ECG changes with increasing hyperkalemia
ECG in hyperkalemia with peaked T waves and small P waves
ECG with widened QRS complex and tall broad T waves
ECG showing sine wave pattern


  • ECG
  • Chem 10 (including potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus)
    • Consider point-of-care lab testing for more rapid result
  • Consider ABG/VBG to evaluate pH


Changes NOT always predictable and sequential

  • 6.5 - 7.5 mEq/L: peaked T waves, prolonged PR interval, shortened QT interval
  • 7.5 - 8.0 mEq/L: widened QRS interval, flattened P waves
  • 10 - 12 mEq/L: sine wave, ventricular fibrillation, heart block


  • Based on lab testing (>5.5 mEq/L), although ECG may provide earlier information
  • Consider pseudohyperkalemia (e.g. from hemolysis)


Stabilize cardiac membranes

Indicated if there are any ECG changes or evidence of arrhythmias. Consider if K >7 mEq/L

  • Either one of the following:
    • Calcium gluconate: Give 10ml of a 10% solution (1 gram) over 5-10 mins. In severe cases may have to start with higher dose of 3 grams (30 mLs) and repeat doses (up to 9-15 grams total).
      • Only 1/3 the elemental calcium compared to calcium chloride.
      • Can cause hypotension due to osmotic shift
    • Calcium chloride 1 gram IV
      • Give over 1 - 2 minutes
      • Extravasation is bad: use a good IV
      • Usually given in code situations
  • Takes effect in 15-30 minutes[1]
    • (If given for hyperkalemic cardiac arrest, need to continue resuscitation for at least 30 minutes)
  • Duration of action: 30 - 60 minutes [2]
  • Use caution in patients taking Digoxin although risk of Stone heart may be unsubstantiated [3]
  • Do serial ECGs to track progress: may need to give multiple doses

Shift K+ intracellularly

  • Intravenous insulin + dextrose
    • Give 10 units regular insulin intravenously with 25 to 50 grams (1 - 2 50 mL ampules) of 50% dextrose (D50)
      • May withhold dextrose if blood sugar >300mg/dl (>17 mmol/L)
      • Duration of effect: 4 - 6 hours
      • Consider mixing in 10 cc NS syringe to ensure small volume of 10 units insulin fully administered via IV
      • Insulin cleared renally, be careful about inducing hypoglycemia (ESRD patients).
        • In a small 2017 retrospective cohort study, researchers found that giving 5 units of insulin instead of 10 units reduced serum potassium to the same extent as 10 units, with a lower rate of hypoglycemia.
        • Consider decreasing to 5 units or increasing dextrose dose to 50g with following risk factors: pretreatment blood glucose <150, acute kidney injury/chronic kidney disease, no history of DM, weight <60kg, female sex [4]
  • Nebulized albuterol 15 - 20mg
    • Response is dose-dependent
    • Peak effect: 30 minutes
    • Duration of effect: 2 hours
  • Sodium bicarbonate
    • Generally not considered unless pH <7.1
    • Pushing "ampules of hypertonic bicarbonate have been proven to be ineffective in RCTs"[5]
    • For normovolemic or hypovolemic patients with metabolic acidosis:
      • Give three amps of bicarbonate in a liter of D5W or sterile water

Remove K+ from body

  • Intravenous furosemide (Lasix) 40 - 80mg
    • Ensure adequate urine output first
    • Decreases the potassium in three ways: dilution, shifting of potassium into muscle cells, and promotion of renal potassium excretion by alkalosis[6]
    • More on how to use Lasix: IBCC Hyperkalemia Chapter
  • Sodium polystyrene sulfonate (Kayexalate): 30 gm oral or per rectum
  • Sodium zirconium cyclosilicate (Lokelma)
    • Potassium binder, similar to Kayexalate but without risk of bowel perforation[7]
    • 10 mg PO TID for up to 48 hours, then 10-15 mg PO QD for maintenance
  • Intravenous lactated ringers solution for volume expansion if dehydrated, rhabdomyolysis, diabetic ketoacidosis or other acidosis (avoid NS, causes hyperchloremic acidosis which shifts potassium out of cells increasing level)
    • consider isotonic bicarbonate if significant acidosis (D5W with 3 amps of bicarb per liter), can calculate bicarbonate deficit then divide by 150mEq/L to estimate number of liters of isotonic bicarbonate required) [8]
  • Hydrocortisone if suspicious for adrenal insufficiency
  • Definitive treatment is hemodialysis

IV Fluid Choice

  • LR is preferred over NS, even in renal failure[9]
  • The small amount of 4 mEq/L of potassium in lactated ringers does not contribute to worsening hyperkalemia
  • Hyperkalemia worsens with metabolic acidosis, and large volume normal saline administration increases risk of hyperchloremic non-anion gap metabolic acidosis


  • Consideration for ICU for frequent electrolyte checks and close cardiac monitoring

See Also

External Links


  1. http://lifeinthefastlane.com/hyperkalemia/. Accessed 02/22/2016
  2. The Effect of Calcium on Severe Hyperkalemia http://hqmeded-ecg.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-effect-of-calcium-on-severe.html
  3. Erickson CP, Olson KR. Case files of the medical toxicology fellowship of the California poison control system-San Francisco: calcium plus digoxin-more taboo than toxic? J Med Toxicol. 2008 Mar;4(1):33-9
  4. Moussavi K1, Fitter S2, Gabrielson SW3, Koyfman A4, Long B5. Management of Hyperkalemia With Insulin and Glucose: Pearls for the Emergency Clinician. J Emerg Med. 2019 Jul;57(1):36-42.
  5. IBCC Hyperkalemia Chapter
  6. IBCC Hyperkalemia Chapter
  7. Beccari, Mario V, and Calvin J Meaney. “Clinical utility of patiromer, sodium zirconium cyclosilicate, and sodium polystyrene sulfonate for the treatment of hyperkalemia: an evidence-based review.” Core evidence vol. 12 11-24. 23 Mar. 2017, doi:10.2147/CE.S129555
  8. https://emcrit.org/pulmcrit/fluid-selection-using-ph-guided-resuscitation
  9. O'Malley CM, Frumento RJ, Hardy MA, Benvenisty AI, Brentjens TE, Mercer JS, Bennett-Guerrero E. A randomized, double-blind comparison of lactated Ringer's solution and 0.9% NaCl during renal transplantation. Anesth. Analg. 2005 May;100(5):1518-24.