Hypokalemia (Low Potassium)

What is hypokalemia?

Hypokalemia means that the amount of potassium in your blood is lower than normal. Potassium is one of several minerals in the blood called electrolytes. Electrolytes help control the amount of fluid in your body and the way your muscles, nerves, and other cells work. You need the right balance of potassium and other electrolytes in your body to stay healthy. Too little potassium in the blood can cause serious problems, such as a life-threatening heart rhythm or severe muscle weakness. The balance of electrolytes in your body can be affected by diet, medicine, how much water you drink, or problems with your lungs, kidneys, or other organs.

You get potassium from food and supplements.

What is the cause?

There are many ways hypokalemia can happen. Often it happens because your body is losing more fluid than normal. You may lose more fluid when:

  • You have had a lot of vomiting or diarrhea.
  • You are taking a medicine that makes your body lose too much potassium, such as a diuretic or “water pill”.

Other possible causes of low potassium are:

  • You are not getting enough potassium from your diet.
  • You have been sweating a lot during exercise.
  • You have kidney disease.
  • You have an eating disorder, such as bulimia.
  • You have imbalances of hormones.

What are the symptoms?

When hypokalemia is mild, it usually does not cause symptoms. When it does cause symptoms, the most common symptom is tiredness, weak muscles and a rise in your blood pressure. If your potassium gets too low, it can affect your heart’s rhythm. Your heartbeat may be fast or irregular.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have blood and urine tests. You may also have tests or scans to check for other possible causes of your symptoms, such as: ECG (also called an EKG or electrocardiogram), which measures and records your heartbeat

How is it treated?

Your treatment will depend on how severe your low potassium is and the cause.

For loss of fluid caused by stomach flu or heavy exercise, drinking sports drinks and eating foods rich in potassium may be all you need.

If you take medicine that makes you lose potassium, your provider may change your medicine. Your provider may suggest that you eat more foods rich in potassium or take a potassium tablet.

If your hypokalemia is severe, you will probably stay in the hospital and be given fluids and potassium by IV.

If low potassium is caused by a medical problem, treating the medical problem may improve your potassium level.

You may have blood tests on a regular basis to check your potassium level.

How should I take care of myself?

Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions. Too much potassium can cause serious and life-threatening problems, so it’s very important to work with your provider to control your potassium and not miss your check-ups and lab tests.

Many fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods, are good sources of potassium. Some examples of foods rich in potassium are:

  • Fruits such as melons, bananas, oranges, pears, papayas, mangoes, kiwis, prunes and raisins
  • Yogurt, 2% milk, soy milk, and low-fat cottage cheese
  • Nuts and nut butter
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Vegetables such as avocados, pumpkin, broccoli, lima beans, peas, tomatoes, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, potatoes, and potatoes with skin
  • All meat, including chicken, soy products and fish such as cod, salmon and sardines,

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent hypokalemia?

If you get a lot of exercise or you have had the stomach flu, sports drinks or eating potassium-rich foods can help prevent low potassium.

Low potassium caused by medicine you are taking can be prevented by replacing the lost potassium with high-potassium foods or potassium supplements. In some cases, your healthcare provider may change the medicine you take.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-02
Last reviewed: 2014-06-02
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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