Low potassium level

Definition

Low potassium level is a problem in which the amount of potassium in the blood is lower than normal. The medical name of this condition is hypokalemia. 

Causes

Potassium is needed for 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.

Common causes of low potassium level  include:

Symptoms

A small drop in potassium level often does not cause symptoms. Or symptoms may be mild and include:

A large drop in potassium level may slow your heartbeat. This can cause you to feel lightheaded or faint. A very low potassium level can even cause your heart to stop.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will order a blood test to check your potassium level.

Other blood tests may be ordered to check levels of:

Treatment

If your condition is mild, your doctor will likely prescribe oral potassium pills. If your condition is severe, you may need to get potassium through a vein ( IV).

If you need diuretics, you doctor may:

Eating foods rich in potassium can help treat and prevent low level of potassium. These foods include:

Outlook (Prognosis)

Taking potassium supplements can usually correct the problem. In severe cases, without proper treatment, a severe drop in potassium level can lead to serious heart rhythm problems that can be fatal.

In severe cases, patients can develop paralysis that can be life-threatening. This is more common when there is too much thyroid hormone in the blood.  This is called thyrotoxic periodic paralysis.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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

Eating a diet rich in potassium can help prevent hypokalemia. Foods high in potassium include:


Review Date: 4/14/2013
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

This information should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. © 1997- 2007 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.