The NLRP3 inflammasome is an important component of the innate immune system. However, its mechanism of activation remains largely unknown. We show that NLRP3 activators including bacterial pore-forming toxins, nigericin, ATP, and particulate matter caused mitochondrial perturbation or the opening of a large membrane pore, but this was not required for NLRP3 activation. Furthermore, reactive oxygen species generation or a change in cell volume was not necessary for NLRP3 activation. Instead, the only common activity induced by all NLRP3 agonists was the permeation of the cell membrane to K+ and Na+. Notably, reduction of the intracellular K+ concentration was sufficient to activate NLRP3, whereas an increase in intracellular Na+ modulated but was not strictly required for inflammasome activation. These results provide a unifying model for the activation of the NLRP3 inflammasome in which a drop in cytosolic K+ is the common step that is necessary and sufficient for caspase-1 activation.