Potassium is an important mineral and electrolyte found in the body. It is needed for nerve cells and for your heart to work normally. A low level of potassium in the blood is called hypokalemia. Potassium enters your body through certain foods and is excreted by your kidneys. Low potassium is usually diagnosed on the basis of lab work. Severe cases of low potassium can be life-threatening.
Low potassium can result from medications like particular antibiotics and diuretics or foods containing heavy amounts of natural licorice. Other causes can include severe burns, diarrhea, bulimia, excessive sweating, kidney problems, excessive vomiting, Liddle syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, Fanconi syndrome, Bartter syndrome, cystic fibrosis, dehydration, alcoholism, malnutrition and Cushing syndrome. Not getting enough potassium in your diet is a rare cause of low potassium levels in the body.
Signs and Symptoms
Low potassium can causemuscle cramps, weakness, diarrhea, nausea, dehydration, increased urination, low blood pressure, irritability, confusion, uncharacteristic heart rhythm, constipation, paralysis and fatigue. Paralysis can include your lungs.
According to the American Heart Association, potassium is found in raisins, prunes, apricots, dates, bananas, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, grapefruit, oranges, beets, spinach, greens, peas, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, beef, fish and turkey. Additional food sources of potassium include bran, brussels sprouts, kiwi, granola, milk, peanut butter, scallops, figs, potatoes, squash and peaches.
In mild cases, your physician may prescribe oral potassium supplements. Severe cases of low potassium may require IV potassium administered by a healthcare professional. If diuretics are the possible cause of your low potassium, your physician may change your diuretic to one that doesn’t affect your potassium, such as spironolactone or triamterene.
Normal potassium values are 3.5 to 5.0 mEq/L in adults, 3.4 to 4.7 mEq/L in children, 4.1 to 5.3 mEq/L in infants and 3.9 to 5.9 mEq/L in newborns. Your physician will decide if your results are below normal. Potassium levels may be monitored by your physician if you are taking certain medications, to see if treatment of abnormal potassium level is effective, to make sure extra nutrition is adequate and in people taking certain cancer treatments or kidney dialysis.