The impact of hypothermia on serum potassium concentration: A systematic review

Resuscitation. 2017 Sep:118:35-42. doi: 10.1016/j.resuscitation.2017.07.003. Epub 2017 Jul 5.


Background: Blood potassium is the main prognostic biomarker used for triage in hypothermic cardiac arrest. The aim of this review was to assess the impact of hypothermia on blood potassium levels and compare the underlying pathophysiological theories.

Methods: The Medline electronic database was searched via PubMed for articles published from January 1970 to December 2016. The search strategy included studies related to hypothermia and potassium levels. The relevant literature on clinical studies and experimental studies was reviewed by the authors.

Results: Among the 50 studies included in the review, 39 (78%) reported a decrease in blood potassium levels upon hypothermia onset. Hypothermic hypokalaemia is linked to an intracellular shift rather than an actual net loss. The intracellular shift is caused by a variety of factors such as enhanced functioning of Na+K+ATPase, beta-adrenergic stimulation, pH and membrane stabilisation in deep hypothermia. In contrast, hypothermia can act as an aggravating factor in severe trauma with hyperkalaemia being an indicator of an irreversible state of cell death. An increase in the blood potassium level during hypothermia may result from a lack of enzyme functioning at cold temperatures and blocked active transport.

Conclusion: Hypothermia causes an initial decrease of potassium levels; however, the final stage of hypothermic cardiac arrest can induce hyperkalaemia due to cell lysis and final depolarisation. Better understanding the physiopathology of potassium levels during accidental hypothermia could be critically important to better select patients who could benefit from aggressive resuscitation therapy such as extracorporeal cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Keywords: Hyperkalaemia; Hypokalaemia; Hypothermia; Potassium.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Heart Arrest / blood*
  • Heart Arrest / etiology
  • Humans
  • Hyperkalemia / blood*
  • Hyperkalemia / etiology
  • Hypokalemia / blood*
  • Hypokalemia / etiology
  • Hypothermia / blood*
  • Hypothermia / physiopathology
  • Potassium / blood*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Biomarkers
  • Potassium