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Definition

What is low potassium?

Low potassium (hypokalemia) refers to a lower than normal potassium level in your bloodstream. Potassium helps carry electrical signals to cells in your body. It is critical to the proper functioning of nerve and muscles cells, particularly heart muscle cells.

Normally, your blood potassium level is 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A very low potassium level (less than 2.5 mmol/L) can be life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention.

How common is low potassium?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of low potassium?

Potassium affects the way neuromuscular cells discharge energy (depolarize) and then regenerate (repolarize) that energy to be able to fire again. When potassium levels are low, the cells cannot repolarize and are unable to fire repeatedly, and muscles and nerves may not function normally. The effects of low potassium include may cause the following symptoms:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscle cramps
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeats)

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes low potassium?

Low potassium can occur for many reasons. Use of water pills (diuretics), diarrhea, and chronic laxative abuse are the most common causes of low potassium levels.

Illness and other medications may also lower potassium levels.

Other causes of hypokalemia include:

Kidney losses

  • Certain kidney disorders such as renal tubular acidosis (for example, chronic kidney failure and acute kidney failure)
  • Magnesium deficiency
  • Leukemia
  • Cushing’s disease (and other adrenal disorders)

Loss of potassium through stomach and intestines

  • Vomiting
  • Enemas or excessive laxative use
  • Diarrhea
  • After ileostomy operation

Effect of medicines

  • Water pills (diuretics)
  • Medicines used for asthma or emphysema (beta-adrenergic agonist drugs such as bronchodilators, steroids, or theophylline)
  • Aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)

Shifting of potassium into and out of cells can lower the concentration of potassium measured in the blood.

  • Use of insulin
  • Certain metabolic states (such as alkalosis)

Decreased food intake or malnutrition

  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia
  • Bariatric surgery
  • Alcoholism

Risk factors

What increases my risk for low potassium?

Woman and African-Americans are at higher risk of developing hypokalemia. Please consult your doctor for further information about risk factors of low potassium.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is low potassium diagnosed?

Sometimes the cause of low potassium is not clear. Your doctor may perform certain tests to rule out other conditions such as renal tubular acidosis, Cushing syndrome, and hypocalcemia.

  • If an electrolyte imbalance is suspected, blood tests will be ordered check potassium levels, kidney function (BUN and creatinine), glucose, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous if an electrolyte imbalance is suspected.
  • Because low potassium is known to affect heart rhythms (arrhythmias), a doctor may order a digoxin (Lanoxin) level if the patient is taking a digitalis preparation.
  • ECG or a heart tracing is done to detect electrical changes in the heart and certain types of irregular heart rhythms that may be caused by low potassium.

How is low potassium treated?

Potassium replacement therapy will be directed by the type and severity of the patient’s symptoms. Treatment begins after lab tests confirm the diagnosis.

People suspected of having severely low potassium need to be placed on a cardiac monitor and have an IV started.

Usually, those with mild or moderately low potassium levels (2.5-3.5 mEq/L), who have no symptoms, or who have only minor complaints only need to be treated with potassium given in pill or liquid form. This is preferred because it is easy to administer, safe, inexpensive, and readily absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Some preparations, or too high of a dose, may irritate the stomach and cause vomiting.

If cardiac arrhythmias or significant symptoms are present or if the potassium level is less than 2.5 mEq/L, IV potassium should be given. In this situation, admission or observation in the emergency department is indicated. Replacing potassium takes several hours as it must be administered very slowly intravenously to avoid serious heart problems and avoid irritating the blood vessel where the IV is placed.

For those with severely low potassium and symptoms, both IV potassium and oral medication are necessary.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage low potassium?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with low potassium:

Low Potassium Self-Care at Home

  • If you are monitoring low potassium levels, avoid long, strenuous physical activities because loss of potassium occurs with sweating.
  • If dietary supplements, herbal supplements, diuretics (water pills), or laxatives are causing the low potassium symptoms, avoid taking these products and consult a doctor. Never stop taking a prescribed medication without first consulting your doctor.
  • If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 21, 2017 | Last Modified: October 21, 2017

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