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Low potassium level

Definition

Low potassium level is a problem in which the amount of potassium in the blood is lower than normal. The medical name of this condition is hypokalemia. 

Alternative Names

Potassium - low; Low blood potassium; Hypokalemia

Causes

Potassium is needed for cells to function properly. You get potassium through food. The kidneys remove excess potassium in the urine to keep a proper balance of the mineral in the body.

Common causes of low potassium level  include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Using too much laxative, which can cause diarrhea
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diuretic medicines (water pills), used to treat heart failure and high blood pressure
  • Eating disorders (such as bulimia )
  • Low magnesium level
  • Sweating

Symptoms

A small drop in potassium level often does not cause symptoms. Or symptoms may be mild and include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms (dysrhythmias ), especially in people with heart disease
  • Constipation
  • Feeling of skipped heart beats or palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle damage
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Tingling or numbness

A large drop in potassium level may slow your heartbeat. This can cause you to feel lightheaded or faint. A very low potassium level can even cause your heart to stop.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will order a blood test to check your potassium level .

Other blood tests may be ordered to check levels of:

Treatment

If your condition is mild, your doctor will likely prescribe oral potassium pills. If your condition is severe, you may need to get potassium through a vein ( IV).

If you need diuretics, you doctor may:

  • Switch you to a form that keeps potassium in the body. This type of diuretic is called potassium-sparing.
  • Prescribe extra potassium for you to take every day.

Eating foods rich in potassium can help treat and prevent low level of potassium. These foods include:

  • Avocados
  • Baked potato
  • Bananas
  • Bran
  • Carrots
  • Cooked lean beef
  • Milk
  • Oranges
  • Peanut butter
  • Peas and beans
  • Salmon
  • Seaweed
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat germ

Outlook (Prognosis)

Taking potassium supplements can usually correct the problem. In severe cases, without proper treatment, a severe drop in potassium level can lead to serious heart rhythm problems that can be fatal.

Possible Complications

In severe cases, patients can develop paralysis that can be life-threatening. This is more common when there is too much thyroid hormone in the blood.  This is called thyrotoxic periodic paralysis .

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if you have been vomiting or have had excessive diarrhea, or if you are taking diuretics and have symptoms of hypokalemia.

Prevention

Eating a diet rich in potassium can help prevent hypokalemia. Foods high in potassium include:

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Bran
  • Carrots
  • Dried figs
  • Kiwi
  • Lima beans
  • Milk
  • Molasses
  • Oranges
  • Peanut butter
  • Peas and beans
  • Seaweed
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat germ

References

Mount DB, Zandi-Nejad K. Disorders of potassium balance. In: Brenner BM, ed. . 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2008:chap 15.

Seifter JL. Potassium disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. . 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 121.

Encyclopedia content is provided as information only and not intended to replace the advice and instruction from your personal physician.