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Alternative Names Return to topPotassium - low; Low blood potassium
Definition Return to top
Hypokalemia is a lower-than-normal amount of potassium in the blood. It may result from a number of conditions.
Causes Return to top
Potassium is needed for cells, especially nerve and muscle cells, to function properly. You get potassium through food. The kidneys remove excess potassium in the urine to keep a proper balance of the mineral in the body.
Hypokalemia is a metabolic disorder that occurs when the level of potassium in the blood drops too low.
Possible causes of hypokalemia include:
Symptoms Return to top
A small drop in potassium usually doesn't cause symptoms. However, a big drop in the level can be life threatening.
Symptoms of hypokalemia include:
Exams and Tests Return to top
Your health care provider will take a sample of your blood to check potassium levels.
Other tests might include:
Treatment Return to top
Mild hypokalemia can be treated by taking potassium supplements by mouth. Persons with more severe cases may need to get potassium through a vein (intravenously).
If you need to use diuretics, your doctor may switch you to a form that keeps potassium in the body (such as triamterene, amiloride, or spironolactone).
One type of hypokalemia that causes paralysis occurs when there is too much thyroid hormone in the blood (thyrotoxic periodic paralysis). Treatment lowers the thyroid hormone level, and raises the potassium level in the blood.
Outlook (Prognosis) Return to top
Taking potassium supplements can usually correct the problem. Without proper treatment, potassium levels in severe cases can drop low enough to cause death.
Possible Complications Return to top
In severe cases, patients can develop paralysis that can be life threatening. Hypokalemia also can lead to dangerous irregular heartbeat. Over time, lack of potassium can lead to kidney damage (hypokalemic nephropathy).
When to Contact a Medical Professional Return to top
Call your health care provider if you have been vomiting or have had excessive diarrhea, or if you are taking diuretics and have symptoms of hypokalemia.
Prevention Return to top
Eating a diet rich in potassium can help prevent hypokalemia. Foods high in potassium include:
References Return to top
Schaefer TJ, Wolford RW. Disorders of potassium. Emerg Med Clin North Am. August 2005;23:723-747.
Lafrance JP, Leblanc M. Metabolic, electrolytes, and nutritional concerns in critical illness. Crit Care Clin. April 2005;21:305-327.
Goldman L, Ausiello D. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa:Saunders, 2003.
Fukagawa M, Kurokawa K, Papadakis M. Fluid and electrolyte disorders. In Gonzales R, Ziegler R, eds. Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment 2007. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill, 2006.Update Date: 9/12/2007 Updated by: Robert Hurd, MD, Professor of Endocrinology, Department of Biology, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, and physician in the Primary Care Clinic, Cincinnati Veterans Administration Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.