Doctor's Notes on Low Potassium
Hypokalemia is the situation in which the blood level of potassium is abnormally low. Potassium is important for a number of body functions, and small variations in the blood level of potassium can have serious effects on the body. Nerve and muscle cells, including those in the heart, are particularly vulnerable to changes in normal potassium levels. The most common reason for low potassium levels is not a decrease in intake but rather and excessive loss of potassium through vomiting, diarrhea, laxative use, and following certain surgical procedures to remove part of the intestines. Excessive loss of potassium from the kidneys and loss due to certain medications are other reasons for hypokalemia.
Symptoms that can be associated with hypokalemia can include muscle aches, muscle weakness, or muscle cramps. Irregular heartbeats (palpitations) may also occur. Psychological symptoms like delirium, hallucinations, depression, or psychosis may accompany severe hypokalemia. In extreme cases, life-threatening complications such as cardiac arrhythmias or circulatory collapse may develop.
Usually symptoms of low potassium are mild. At times the effects of low potassium can be vague. There may be more than one symptom involving the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, kidneys, muscles, heart, and nerves.
- Weakness, tiredness, or cramping in arm or leg muscles, sometimes severe enough to cause inability to move arms or legs due to weakness (much like a paralysis)
- Tingling or numbness
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal cramping, bloating
- Palpitations (feeling your heart beat irregularly)
- Passing large amounts of urine or feeling thirsty most of the time
- Fainting due to low blood pressure
- Abnormal psychological behavior: depression, psychosis, delirium, confusion, or hallucinations.
Low potassium can occur for many reasons. Use of water pills (diuretics), diarrhea, and chronic laxative abuse are the most common causes of low potassium levels.
Illness and other medications may also lower potassium levels. Woman and African-Americans are at higher risk of developing hypokalemia.
Other causes of hypokalemia include:
- Certain kidney disorders such as renal tubular acidosis (for example, chronic kidney failure and acute kidney failure)
- Magnesium deficiency
- Cushing's disease (and other adrenal disorders)
Loss of potassium through stomach and intestines
Effect of medicines
- Water pills (diuretics)
- Medicines used for asthma or emphysema (beta-adrenergic agonist drugs such as bronchodilators, steroids, or theophylline)
- Aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)
Shifting of potassium into and out of cells can lower the concentration of potassium measured in the blood.
- Use of insulin
- Certain metabolic states (such as alkalosis)
Decreased food intake or malnutrition
Anyone Can Have It
This illness means you have a lower than normal red blood cell (RBC) count. Normal values vary; blood tests like the complete blood count (CBC) can be explained by your doctor. Anemia may also result from low levels of hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen to the body. No matter what the cause, less oxygen is available and this produces weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath. It is treatable once the underlying cause is identified. Long-standing or severe lack of oxygen can damage of the brain, heart, and other organs.
The three main causes of the illness are inadequate or faulty production of red blood cells, a high rate of destruction of red blood cells, and excessive bleeding. Megaloblastic is one type of faulty red cell production. The condition of anemia may be mild and easily treatable or severe and require immediate intervention.
Food Portion Distortion : Correct Serving Size QuizQuestion
A bagel 20 years ago was 3 inches in diameter and had 140 calories. How many calories do you think are in today's bagel?See Answer
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.