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Potassium is the major positive ion (cation) found inside of cells. The chemical notation for potassium is K+. The proper level of potassium is essential for normal cell function. Among the many functions of potassium in the body are regulation of the heartbeat and the function of the muscles. A seriously abnormal increase in potassium (hyperkalemia) or decrease in potassium (hypokalemia) can profoundly affect the nervous system and increases the chance of irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), which, when extreme, can be fatal.
- Increased potassium is known as hyperkalemia. Potassium is normally excreted by the kidneys, so disorders that decrease the function of the kidneys can result in hyperkalemia. Certain medications may also predispose an individual to hyperkalemia.
- Hypokalemia, or decreased potassium, can arise due to kidney diseases; excessive losses due to heavy sweating, vomiting, diarrhea, eating disorders, certain medications, or other causes.
The normal blood potassium level is 3.5 - 5.0 milliEquivalents/liter (mEq/L), or in international units, 3.5 - 5.0 millimoles/liter (mmol/L).