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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. 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.




Review Date: 4/14/2013
Reviewed By: 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.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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