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.
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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
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