What Happens If Potassium Level Is Low?

Potassium is a necessary mineral that plays an important role in heart activity, metabolism, normal body growth, regulating muscle tissue. A low potassium level is also referred to as hypokalemia. Potassium enters your body through food. The kidneys control the amount of potassium in your system. Excess potassium is removed through urine.

Bananas and milk are high in potassium.
Bananas and milk are high in potassium. (Susan Fox/iStock/Getty Images)

The causes of low potassium levels include diarrhea, eating disorders like bulimia, kidney failure, vomiting, Liddle syndrome, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, Bartter syndrome, Fanconi syndrome, eating large amounts of licorice and using products made with glycyrrhetinic acid.

Medications that may cause hypokalemia include acetazolamide, aminosalicylic acid, amphotericin B, carbenicillin, cisplatin, potassium-wasting diuretics, glucose infusions, insulin, laxatives, lithium carbonate, high doses of penicillin G sodium, phenothiazines, aspirin and sodium polystyrene sulfonate (Kayexalate).

Aspirin is one type of medication that may cause hypokalemia.
Aspirin is one type of medication that may cause hypokalemia. (Fuse/Fuse/Getty Images)

The symptoms of low potassium in the blood include weakness, muscle cramps, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, abnormal heart rhythms seen on an electrocardiogram (ECG), constipation, the breakdown of muscle fibers and paralysis. A small drop in the potassium level may not cause symptoms, but a large drop is potentially life-threatening.

Fatigue is a symptom of low potassium.
Fatigue is a symptom of low potassium. (Monkey Business Images/Monkey Business/Getty Images)
Gradation of Symptoms

The initial symptoms of a small decrease in potassium are vague and generally mild. You may not be aware you have this condition unless an abnormality is noticed by your physician during routine blood work. As the potassium level decreases, though, distinct symptoms tend to appear such as confusion, muscle cramps, weakness, fatigue, irregular heartbeat, abnormal heart rhythms and constipation. A significant drop in potassium is an emergency with symptoms such as heart attack, muscle paralysis, breathing problems and death.

Mild to moderate drops in potassium are easily treated, but severe cases may require hospitalization. If you experience symptoms of low potassium contact your physician for further guidance or, if severe, seek emergency medical attention. Symptoms of a low potassium level should be treated under a doctor's guidance to ensure that your level returns to normal.

Seek medical attention.
Seek medical attention. (Alexander Raths/iStock/Getty Images)

A low potassium level is diagnosed by examining the electrical activity of the heart and with blood tests the check arterial blood gas, BUN, creatinine level, glucose, aldosterone, magnesium, thyroxine, calcium, sodium and phosphorus. Not all tests are indicated for every person. Your physician will base the need for specific tests on your medical history and on the presence of symptoms.

According to MedlinePlus.com, the normal serum potassium level for an adult is between 3.7 to 5.2 milliequivalents per liter. According to the Mayo Clinic, a potentially life-threatening potassium level is less than 2.5 milliequivalents per liter. Since some laboratories have different standards related to normal levels, your physician will determine whether your potassium level is abnormal.

A blood test may be used to detect low potassium.
A blood test may be used to detect low potassium. (luchschen/iStock/Getty Images)

The treatment of a low potassium level is generally aimed at treating the underlying condition and adding potassium to your body through medication or diet. Treatment will depend on your potassium deficiency. Medications can be taken by mouth or, in some cases, through a vein.

Your physician may suggest eating a potassium-rich diet. Foods containing high levels of potassium include bananas, brussels sprouts, kiwi, granola, yogurt, milk, lima beans, peaches, oranges, tomatoes, peanut butter, peas, beans, red meat, soy products, chicken, veggie burgers, broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits, winter squash, cantaloupe, prunes, apricots, and certain fishes such as salmon, flounder, sardines and cod.

Kiwis are high in potassium.
Kiwis are high in potassium. (Leonid Yastremskiy/iStock/Getty Images)
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