Hypokalemia means low levels of potassium in the blood. Your body needs potassium to function properly. It gets potassium through the food you eat. Hypokalemia usually results from excessive loss of potassium in the digestive tract from vomiting, diarrhea, or laxatives. Other causes include certain medications, certain adrenal disorders, and genetic disorders.
What is hypokalemia?
Too little potassium in the blood is called hypokalemia. Normal potassium levels in adults range from 3.5 to 5.2 mEq/L (3.5 to 5.2 mmol/L). Less than 3 mEq/L (3 mmol/L) is considered severe hypokalemia.
Potassium is an electrolyte. Electrolytes are minerals that carry an electrical charge when dissolved in your body’s fluids. Your body needs potassium to keep your cells, muscles, and nerves working properly. Your body gets potassium through the food you eat. The kidneys remove excess potassium through urine (urine) to maintain the mineral balance in your body.
How does hypokalemia affect my body?
You need potassium to keep your muscles, nerves, and heart working properly. Potassium is also needed for digestive system and bone health. Low potassium levels can affect these important functions in your body. Over time, low potassium in your body can lead to irregular heart rhythms, muscle weakness, and even paralysis.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes hypokalemia?
Low potassium in the blood is usually caused by excessive loss of potassium in the digestive tract. This can be associated with frequent vomiting, diarrhea, and the use of sedatives. Other causes of hypokalemia include:
Eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa.
Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis).
Alcohol use disorders.
Water pills (diuretics). Diuretics cause excess potassium to be excreted in the urine (urine).
Other medications such as insulin, certain antibiotics, and corticosteroids.
Adrenal disorders such as primary aldosteronism and Cushing’s syndrome.
Chronic kidney disease.
Low magnesium levels (hypomagnesemia).
Certain kidney disorders, such as Bartter’s syndrome and Gitelman’s syndrome. Both of these are rare genetic kidney disorders that cause an imbalance in your body.
Other disorders, such as Liddle syndrome, a rare condition that causes high blood pressure.
In rare cases, potassium deficiency is caused by a poor diet.
What are the symptoms of hypokalemia?
Low levels of potassium do not cause any symptoms. However, symptoms may include:
Extreme fatigue (fatigue).
Muscle weakness and spasms.
Pain and numbness.
In more severe cases of low potassium, the following symptoms may occur:
Severe muscle weakness can cause paralysis.
Low blood pressure (hypotension).
Dizziness or fainting.
Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).
Excessive urination (polyuria).
Excessive thirst (polydipsia).
DIAGNOSIS AND ANALYSIS
How is hypokalemia diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will check your potassium levels with a blood test. Normal potassium levels in adults range from 3.5 to 5.2 mEq/L (3.5 to 5.2 mmol/L). A potassium level of 3 to 3.5 mEq/L (3 to 3.5 mmol/L) is considered mild hypokalemia. Less than 3 mEq/L (3 mmol/L) is considered severe hypokalemia.
Your healthcare provider may order a basic or comprehensive metabolic panel. This panel is a blood group test that determines your body’s kidney function and electrolyte balance.
If hypokalemia is confirmed, your healthcare provider will try to determine the cause. If the cause is unknown, a urinalysis (urinalysis) may be ordered to determine the amount of potassium in your urine.
Your healthcare provider may order an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). An EKG measures the heart’s rhythm. Hypokalemia can cause cardiac arrhythmias. An EKG can detect heart rhythm abnormalities.
MANAGEMENT AND TREATMENT
How is hypokalemia treated?
If you have mild hypokalemia, your healthcare provider will prescribe oral potassium supplements. If your case is more severe, your healthcare provider may give you potassium intravenously (intravenously). Reasons you may need intravenous potassium include:
Your potassium levels are very low.
Hypokalemia can cause cardiac arrhythmias.
Oral supplements are ineffective.
You’re losing more potassium than you’re making up for with oral supplements.
Your healthcare provider will treat any conditions that cause hypokalemia.
If you need to take a diuretic, your healthcare provider may switch you to a type that stores potassium in your body. They may tell you to take a potassium supplement.
How can I reduce my risk of hypokalemia?
You can reduce your risk of hypokalemia by eating a diet rich in potassium. Discuss your diet with your health care provider. Foods that contain potassium include many fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, dairy products, and legumes. Foods high in potassium include:
Beans and peas.
Dark leafy greens.
If you experience vomiting or diarrhea for more than 24-48 hours, you should seek immediate medical attention. Fluid loss can cause hypokalemia. The earlier you get treatment, the better your chance of prevention.
(Note: If you’ve never had hypokalemia, you don’t need to take precautions.)
PROGRAM / SCHEDULE
What can I expect if I have hypokalemia?
If you have mild hypokalemia, potassium supplements can help treat it. Continue to eat a potassium-rich diet.
If your condition is more severe, intravenous potassium should treat it. If left untreated, severe hypokalemia can lead to serious heart rhythm problems. In addition, life-threatening paralysis may occur.
Consult your health care provider for appropriate treatment of hypokalemia.
Annals of the Cleveland Clinic
In hypokalemia, the amount of potassium in the blood is too low. Your body needs potassium to function properly. Hypokalemia can affect your cells, muscles, nerves, digestive system, and skeletal system. To make sure you’re getting enough potassium, check with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re eating enough foods that contain the mineral. If you have vomiting or diarrhea for more than a day or two, seek immediate medical attention.