Hypokalemia means that the amount of potassium in your blood is lower than normal. Potassium is one of the most important minerals in your body. It is very important for normal heart and nervous system function. For example, a very low blood level of potassium can lead to serious and even fatal heart rhythm problems.
You get potassium from many different foods. Your body normally keeps only as much potassium as it needs and gets rid of the rest.
There are many ways hypokalemia can happen. Often it happens because your body is losing more fluid than normal. You may lose more fluid when:
Hormone problems are another cause of low potassium. For example:
Other possible causes of low potassium are:
When hypokalemia is mild, it usually does not cause any symptoms. When it does cause symptoms, the most common one is tiredness, especially of the muscles. The muscles may feel weak and they may tend to cramp.
If your potassium gets too low, it can also affect the heart muscle and the heart’s rhythm. Your heart may beat fast or irregularly.
Low potassium is diagnosed with a blood test.
If you have one of the more uncommon reasons for having low potassium, you will need more tests, such as:
For the common causes of low potassium, such as stomach flu or heavy exercise, you can usually replace lost potassium by eating foods rich in potassium or by drinking sports drinks. If you are taking a diuretic medicine that makes you lose potassium, you may need to eat foods that have a lot of potassium every day, or you may need to take potassium tablets every day. You can ask your healthcare provider if a diuretic that helps you keep your potassium would work for you. You may have blood tests on a regular basis to check your potassium level.
If your hypokalemia is severe, you need treatment right away, which may include getting potassium by IV (by vein) so you can raise your level of potassium quickly to prevent heart complications.
If low potassium is caused by an underlying medical problem, such as too much aldosterone or cortisol, the underlying problem will need to be treated.
In most cases of mild hypokalemia the potassium will return to normal a few days after you start taking potassium. If your potassium was low enough to cause symptoms, it may take a few days of treatment for the weakness and other symptoms to go away.
It is very important to follow your healthcare provider’s advice regarding:
Many fruits and vegetables, as well as other foods, are good sources of potassium. Some examples of foods rich in potassium are:
If you are an active exerciser or you have had a bout of the stomach flu, be sure to use sports drinks or a few potassium-rich foods to prevent low potassium.
Low potassium caused by medicine you are taking can be prevented by replacing the lost potassium with high-potassium foods or potassium pills. Be sure to keep your appointments to get your potassium checked.