Low potassium level

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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. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 8th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Elsevier Saunders; 2008:chap 15.

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

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 4/14/2013
  • David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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This page was last updated: April 14, 2014

         
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