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Health Information

Hypokalemia

Definition

Potassium is a mineral that is needed to help the heart, kidneys, and other organs function. Hypokalemia is lower than normal levels of potassium in your blood.

All cells within the body need potassium. It works to regulate water and mineral balance throughout the body. Low levels can cause muscle and nerve problems throughout the body. It can also cause an irregular heart rate.

Causes

Potassium enters the body through food and digestion. It passes out of the blood through the kidneys. Hypokalemia occurs when there is not enough potassium being absorbed into the body, too much potassium is removed by the kidneys, or potassium moves from the blood into the cells.

Risk Factors

Factors that may interfere with potassium excretion through the kidneys include:

  • Certain medications such as diuretics
  • Kidney disease or failure—too much potassium excreted
  • Significant elevation of glucose and ketoacidosis from poorly controlled diabetes
  • Leukemia
Kidney Damage
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Factors that may decrease your intake or absorption of potassium include:

  • Poor diet
  • Eating disorders
  • Excess alcohol intake
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

Symptoms

Early hypokalemia may not have any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Irregular heartbeat

Diagnosis

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Potassium levels in your body fluids will be tested with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests

An EKG may be done to see if the potassium is affecting your heart.

Treatment

The main goal of treatment is to increase the level of potassium in your body. Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Options include:

Medications

IV fluids may be given. You may also be given the following to raise the amount of potassium in your blood:

  • Potassium
  • Magnesium

Your current medications may be changed if they are the cause of your hypokalemia.

Dietary Changes

You may be advised to increase the amount of potassium in your diet. You may be referred to a dietitian to help you balance the potassium in your diet.

Prevention

To help reduce your chance of getting hypokalemia, take these steps:

  • Eat a diet that contains enough potassium.
  • Manage conditions such as diabetes.

Revision Information

  • American Academy of Family Physicians

    http://www.aafp.org

  • American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists

    http://www.aace.com

  • The Canadian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism

    http://www.endo-metab.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca

  • Hypokalemia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 15, 2013. Accessed January 8, 2014.

  • Hypokalaemia. Patient UK website. Available at: http://www.patient.co.uk/doctor/hypokalaemia. Updated December 4, 2013. Accessed January 8, 2014.

  • Hypokalemia. NORD website. Available at: https://www.rarediseases.org/rare-disease-information/rare-diseases/byID/748/viewFullReport. Updated February 2, 2008. Accessed January 8, 2014.