A low blood potassium level is medically known as hypokalemia. A blood test is sufficient to confirm its diagnosis.
Levels under 3.5 mEq/L (3.5 mmol/L) are considered low. Moderate hypokalemia is the level of 2.5-3.0 mEq/L. Levels under 2.5 mEq/L are considered too low and known as severe hypokalemia. These levels need emergency hospitalization.
Mild cases of low potassium usually do not cause any symptoms. Too low potassium levels might lead to symptoms including:
- Problems in muscles
- Abdominal distension (paralytic ileus) due to lack of movements in intestines
- Bradycardia (low heart rate) or abnormal heart rhythm
- Psychological symptoms (confusion, depression)
The condition, if severe and left untreated, can lead to life-threatening complications, such as:
- Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm): If you have a heart problem or are on Digoxin medication, then you are more likely to get affected.
- Kidney problems: Persistent hypokalemia can cause problems in the functioning of your kidney. This may lead to increased urination.
- Respiratory failure
- Ileus (lack of movements in the intestine)
What causes low potassium levels?
Low potassium levels are most commonly caused by several episodes of vomiting and/or diarrhea. The condition can also be caused by diarrhea that results from laxative overuse (abuse). Other conditions that can cause low potassium include:
- Excessive sweating
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Certain medications
Less common causes include:
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (a serious complication of diabetes that is caused by severely high blood sugar levels)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid gland)
- Poor diet (a diet low in potassium)
- Overactive adrenal disorders
- Cushing’s syndrome
- Primary aldosteronism
- Kidney disease
Some rare conditions that can cause low potassium include:
- Colon villous polyps (noncancerous extra growths in the colon)
- Liddle syndrome (a rare hereditary disorder that often begins in childhood and causes an increase in blood pressure)
- Bartter syndrome (a rare genetic disorder in which a defective kidney causes salt and potassium imbalance)
- Gitelman syndrome (a rare genetic kidney disorder that causes an imbalance of ions in the body)
What is the treatment for low potassium levels?
The doctor will take your medical history to identify the underlying cause of low potassium levels. They will order certain blood tests to check for additional abnormalities. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will also be ordered to monitor the functioning of your heart, especially to check for heart rhythm.
A low potassium level is a treatable condition. In some cases, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, normalizing the blood sugars via insulin reverses the hypokalemia. Sometimes, the doctors usually prescribe potassium supplements for low potassium levels.
Extremely low potassium levels need administration of potassium through intravenous (IV) solution.
The cause of the low potassium level is addressed. For example, in case of loss of potassium through vomiting/diarrhea, IV fluids will be initiated to correct the dehydration and medications will be given to treat the cause of vomiting or diarrhea.
Low potassium levels are also accompanied by low magnesium levels (hypomagnesemia). Hence, the doctor may also prescribe magnesium supplements.
What foods are sources of potassium?
A diet low in potassium is also one of the factors that can cause your potassium levels to become low. You can prevent potassium levels from getting low by consuming a diet that contains an adequate amount of potassium. After your hospital stay, your doctor may recommend eating rich sources of potassium that include:
- Green leafy vegetables (particularly spinach)
Other foods that are good sources of potassium are:
- Kiwi fruit
- Brussels sprouts
- Soy milk
Top What Can Happen if Your Potassium Level Is Too Low Related Articles
ammonium chlorideAmmonium chloride is an acidifying agent administered intravenously to treat metabolic alkalosis and low chloride levels (hypochloremia). Do not take ammonium chloride if you have impaired liver or kidney function. Common side effects of ammonium chloride include metabolic acidosis, ammonia toxicity symptoms, rapid breathing (hyperventilation), EEG abnormalities, involuntary muscle contractions due to electrolyte imbalance (calcium-deficient tetany), seizure, mental confusion, drowsiness, injection site reactions, rash, low blood potassium levels (hypokalemia), high blood chloride levels (hyperchloremia), abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Consult your doctor if pregnant or breastfeeding.
Common Medical Abbreviations & Terms
Doctors, pharmacists, and other health-care professionals use abbreviations, acronyms, and other terminology for instructions and information in regard to a patient's health condition, prescription drugs they are to take, or medical procedures that have been ordered. There is no approved this list of common medical abbreviations, acronyms, and terminology used by doctors and other health- care professionals. You can use this list of medical abbreviations and acronyms written by our doctors the next time you can't understand what is on your prescription package, blood test results, or medical procedure orders. Examples include:
- ANED: Alive no evidence of disease. The patient arrived in the ER alive with no evidence of disease.
- ARF: Acute renal (kidney) failure
- cap: Capsule.
- CPAP: Continuous positive airway pressure. A treatment for sleep apnea.
- DJD: Degenerative joint disease. Another term for osteoarthritis.
- DM: Diabetes mellitus. Type 1 and type 2 diabetes
- HA: Headache
- IBD: Inflammatory bowel disease. A name for two disorders of the gastrointestinal (BI) tract, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
- JT: Joint
- N/V: Nausea or vomiting.
- p.o.: By mouth. From the Latin terminology per os.
- q.i.d.: Four times daily. As in taking a medicine four times daily.
- RA: Rheumatoid arthritis
- SOB: Shortness of breath.
- T: Temperature. Temperature is recorded as part of the physical examination. It is one of the "vital signs."
Why You Need Potassium and How to Get ItPotassium-rich foods like bananas, potatoes, prunes, oranges, tomatoes, lima beans, and sunflower seeds help your nerves, muscles, and bones. Potassium reduces the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. Low potassium (hypokalemia) and high potassium (hyperkalemia) can cause issues.
Potassium FoodsIt turns out lots of things have more potassium than a banana! Here's a guide to the tastiest choices.
High Potassium (Hyperkalemia)Hyperkalemia is an abnormally high level of potassium in the blood. Hyperkalemia symptoms include nausea, fatigue, tingling sensations, or muscle weakness. Hyperkalemia may also cause no symptoms. Hyperkalemia treatment may include a low-potassium diet, medications, and intravenous glucose and insulin. Causes of hyperkalemia include kidney dysfunction, certain medications, adrenal gland diseases, and potassium shifts.
Low Potassium (Hypokalemia)
Potassium is an essential electrolyte necessary for cell function. Low potassium (hypokalemia) may be caused by diarrhea, vomiting, ileostomy, colon polyps, laxative use, diuretics, elevated corticosteroid levels, renal artery stenosis, and renal tubular acidosis, or other medications. Symptoms of low potassium include weakness, aches, and cramps of the muscles. Treatment is dependent upon the cause of the low potassium (hypokalemia).
potassium bicarbonatePotassium bicarbonate is a medication used as supplemental potassium to treat and prevent low blood potassium levels (hypokalemia). Common side effects of potassium bicarbonate include abdominal discomfort, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas (flatulence), and hyperkalemia. Consult your doctor if pregnant or breastfeeding.
sodium bicarbonateSodium bicarbonate is a chemical compound made of sodium and bicarbonate used to increase the alkalinity of the body. Intravenous sodium bicarbonate is also used as an antidote for metabolic acidosis due to toxicity from many drugs. Oral sodium bicarbonate is an antacid used to temporarily relieve symptoms of acid indigestion, heartburn, and upset stomach. Common side effects of sodium bicarbonate include excessive alkalinity (metabolic alkalosis), high sodium levels in blood (hyponatremia), low potassium levels (hypokalemia), low calcium levels (hypocalcemia), cerebral hemorrhage, increased acid level in the brain tissue (intracranial acidosis), exacerbation of congestive heart failure (CHF), swelling (edema), and others. Consult your doctor if pregnant or breastfeeding.
Veltassa (patiromer)Veltassa is indicated for the treatment of hyperkalemia, or high levels of potassium. High levels of potassium usually are caused by kidney or adrenal gland malfunctions and may cause nausea, fatigue, weakness, and slow heartbeat. Veltassa works in the colon by binding with potassium from your food and preventing your body from absorbing it.
What Does Potassium Do for Your Body?Your body needs potassium to help your nerves, heart, and muscles function correctly. But high potassium levels can lead to health problems.
What Foods Are the Highest in Potassium?Potassium is a mineral that controls the amount of fluid inside the cells. Foods highest in potassium include dried fruits, lentils and other legumes, potatoes, spinach, and bananas.
Which Fruits Are High in Potassium?Potassium is an important mineral that plays a vital role in the body. Fruits that are high in potassium include bananas, cantaloupe, oranges, avocados, grapefruit, apricots, honeydew, guava and kiwi.