Hypokalemia is defined as decreased potassium levels in the body. Potassium is a micro-mineral, an electrolyte that is required for proper functioning of the heart, nerves and maintaining salt-water balance in the body. Low levels of potassium may be life threatening. Hypokalemia may occur as a result of increased rate of loss of body’s potassium or reduced intake. Several causes of hypokalemia may co-exist simultaneously in the body.
Potassium is usually found in fruits like banana, grapes, papaya, avocados, unprocessed foods, such as fresh leafy greens, tomatoes, potatoes and beans.
What causes hypokalemia?
Some common causes of hypokalemia include:
- Excessive vomiting
- Excessive diarrhea
- Eating disorders (Anorexia nervosa) where the person eats less to lose weight and this results in severe starvation and dehydration.
- Chronic kidney disease causing increased loss of potassium in the urine
- Certain medications like diuretics (they decrease fluid level in the body and increase urination) used for blood pressure control, antibiotics and chronic use of laxatives
- Poor nutrition seen in extreme starvation
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (high levels of acids called ketones in the blood in uncontrolled diabetes)
Certain diseases can be associated with low potassium, such as:
What are the signs and symptoms of hypokalaemia?
Temporary low potassium levels in the body may usually not present with obvious symptoms. Long term low levels of potassium can produce the following signs and symptoms:
- Muscle cramps
- Constipation (due to non-functioning of electrolytes)
- Tingling in the fingertips and toe tips
- Numbness over the body
- Breathing difficulties because of paralysis of muscles of respiration
- Mood changes like irritability or drowsiness.
- Cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart rhythm). This may be felt as unconsciousness, feeling giddy or chest pain. This requires immediate medical attention.
- Constant thirst and the urge to go to bathroom.
- Severe cases can cause muscle paralysis. This may be a temporary condition reversible on replacing the lost potassium.
How is hypokalemia diagnosed?
The doctor will obtain a detailed history and perform a clinical assessment. Blood and urine analysis indicate the level of potassium in the body and can confirm the diagnosis of hypokalemia. An electrocardiogram may be done to rule out heart complications.
How is hypokalemia treated?
The treatment options include:
- Treating the underlying cause. E.g. Dehydration, underlying any kidney condition, hormonal imbalance.
- Mild dehydration can be corrected by increasing the fluid intake and
- Intravenous solution like ringer lactate may be required in case of required in the case of cardiac arrhythmias.
- Stopping medication that may be causing hypokalaemia with the doctor’s advice.
- Psychological support to manage alcoholism and eating disorders.
- Always talk to your doctor before starting any supplement. Accumulation of potassium in the body may be dangerous to health.
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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.
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Hyperkalemia (High Blood Potassium)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).