About low potassium (hypokalemia)

What is low potassium (hypokalemia)?

If you have hypokalemia, that means you have low levels of potassium in your blood. Potassium is a mineral your body needs to work normally. It helps muscles to move, cells to get the nutrients they need, and nerves to send their signals. It’s especially important for cells in your heart. It also helps keep your blood pressure from getting too high.

What are the symptoms for low potassium (hypokalemia)?

If your problem is temporary, or you’re only slightly hypokalemic, you might not feel any symptoms. Once your potassium levels fall below a certain level, you might experience:

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps or twitching
  • Constipation
  • Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms)

Hypokalemia can affect your kidneys. You may have to go to the bathroom more often. You may also feel thirsty.

You may notice muscle problems during exercise. In severe cases, Muscle Weakness can lead to Paralysis and possibly respiratory failure.

What are the causes for low potassium (hypokalemia)?

There are many different reasons you could have low potassium levels. It may be because too much potassium is leaving through your digestive tract. It’s usually a symptom of another problem. Most commonly, you get hypokalemia when:

  • You vomit a lot
  • You have diarrhea
  • Your kidneys or adrenal glands don’t work well
  • You take medication that makes you pee (water pills or diuretics)

It’s possible, but rare, to get hypokalemia from having too little potassium in your diet. Other things sometimes cause it, too, like:

  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Sweating a lot
  • Folic acid deficiency
  • Certain antibiotics
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (high levels of acids called ketones in your blood)
  • Laxatives taken over a long period of time
  • Certain types of tobacco
  • Some asthma medications
  • Low magnesium

Several syndromes can be associated with low potassium, such as:

  • Cushing's syndrome
  • Gitelman syndrome
  • Liddle syndrome
  • Bartter syndrome
  • Fanconi syndrome

Women tend to get hypokalemia more often than men.

What are the treatments for low potassium (hypokalemia)?

You can get more potassium by taking supplements. Most of these you can take by mouth. In some cases it’s necessary to get your potassium injected by IV. For example:

  • If your potassium level is dangerously low
  • If taking supplements don’t raise your potassium levels
  • If your low potassium levels cause abnormal heart rhythms

When your hypokalemia is a result of another medical condition, your doctor will help you treat that. If you have low potassium because of diuretics, they may take you off them. Sometimes that makes the condition go away.

Always check with your doctor before you stop any medicine. Also, ask them before you take any potassium supplements. This might cause too much potassium to build up in your system, which could lead to hyperkalemia.

What are the risk factors for low potassium (hypokalemia)?

When blood potassium levels are lower than usual, a condition known as low potassium (hypokalemia) occurs. Between laboratories, there can be some variation in normal potassium readings. A reference range is also provided when a lab reports a potassium level. At that lab, the potassium levels fall within this range. A normal potassium level typically ranges from 3.6 to 5.2 mEq/L in the blood.

One gets potassium, an electrolyte, and mineral, from the food one eats. It is crucial for the health of muscle and nerve cells. The heart muscle needs potassium to function properly, much like other muscles in the body. Abnormal cardiac rhythms can be a result of low potassium levels interfering with the heart. Constipation, weakness, weariness, and muscle cramps are further signs of hypokalemia. Mild cases could go undiagnosed.

Low potassium levels are more likely to develop for a variety of reasons. If one has any of the following factors listed below, they would have a higher risk of getting sick severely
1. Using diuretics with medications that don't save potassium
2. Problems with eating, such as bulimia
3. Alcoholism or abuse in excess
4. Severe perspiration
5. Abusing or overusing laxatives
6. Vomiting or diarrhea that lasts too long

Muscle weakness, cramps, or twitches,Numbness or tingling,Constipation,Fatigue
Heart palpitations or skipping heartbeats,Lightheadedness or fainting,Confusion or disorientation,Excessive thirst or urination,Paralysis,Slow breathing or difficulty breathing
Oral potassium chloride

Is there a cure/medications for low potassium (hypokalemia)?

Though diet alone usually will not resolve hypokalemia, it’s still beneficial to increase your intake of potassium-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts.

In 2019, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) updated the reference daily intakes (RDI) for potassium, concluding that insufficient data supports the previous recommendation of 4,700 mg of potassium per day for adults.

As such, they developed adequate intakes (AI) based on age and sex. Currently, the AI for potassium is 2,600 mg and 3,400 mg per day for women and men, respectively.

Regardless, because only 85–90% of potassium is absorbed from food, the percent of the Daily Value (DV) listed on food labels remains at 4,700 mg. Keep this in mind to help you ensure you’re getting enough.


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