Low Potassium
(Hypokalemia)

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What is is potassium?

Potassium is one of the primary electrolytes (crucial chemicals for cell function), and is concentrated within the cells of the body. Only 2% of the body's total potassium is available in the serum. Small changes in the serum levels of potassium can affect body function. One of the more important functions of potassium to maintain the electrical activity of the cells in the body. Cells with high electrical activity (for example, muscles and nerves) are particularly affected when potassium levels fall.

Normal serum potassium levels range from 3.5 to 5.0 mEq/liter in the blood. Normal daily intake of potassium is 70-100 mEq (270 to 390 mg/dl), and requires the kidneys to remove that same amount each day. If more is removed, the body's total potassium store will be decreased, and the result is hypokalemia (hypo=low + kal=potassium +emia= in the blood) occurs.

Potassium enters the body through dietary intake. Examples of potassium rich foods include:

  • Fresh fruits: bananas, cantaloupe, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, avocados, apricots
  • Fresh vegetables: greens, mushrooms, peas, beets, tomatoes
  • Meats: beef, fish, turkey,
  • Juices: Orange, prune, apricot, grapefruit

What are the causes of low potassium?

Hypokalemia is not commonly caused by poor dietary intake.

The most common reason that potassium levels fall is due to the loss from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and. Potassium loss may occur from both the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the kidney.

Potassium loss from the GI tract may be caused by:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Ileostomy: In some patients who have had bowel surgery and have an ileostomy, the stool output can contain significant amounts of potassium.
  • Villous adenoma (a type of colon polyp that can cause the colon to leak potassium)
  • Laxative use

Causes of potassium loss from the kidney:

Low potassium levels may result from side effects of some medications:


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Low Potassium (Hypokalemia) - Diagnosis Question: How was the diagnosis of your low potassium (hypokalemia) established?
Low Potassium - Symptoms and Signs Question: What are your hypokalemia symptoms and signs?
Low Potassium (Hypokalemia) - Treatment Question: What kinds of treatment were recommended after being diagnosed with low potassium?
Low Potassium (Hypokalemia) - Treatment Question: If you have low potassium, in what ways do you try to prevent it?

Low Potassium Symptoms

Potassium affects the way neuromuscular cells discharge energy (depolarize) and then regenerate (repolarize) that energy to be able to fire again. When potassium levels are low, the cells cannot repolarize and are unable to fire repeatedly, as is needed for the function of muscles and nerves. It is understandable then that the effects of low potassium include:

  • muscle weakness,
  • muscle aches, and
  • muscle cramps.

Since the heart is also a muscle, there can be some changes in the electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) that are associated with hypokalemia. Palpitations (irregular heartbeats) may be experienced by the patient. In severe cases, hypokalemia can lead to dangerous disturbances in heart rhythm (arrhythmias).


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