If you have hypokalemia, that means you have low levels of potassium in your blood. Potassium is a mineral your body needs to work normally. It helps muscles to move, cells to get the nutrients they need, and nerves to send their signals. It’s especially important for cells in your heart. It also helps keep your blood pressure from getting too high.
There are many different reasons you could have low potassium levels. It may be because too much potassium is leaving through your digestive tract. It’s usually a symptom of another problem. Most commonly, you get hypokalemia when:
- You vomit a lot
- You have diarrhea
- Your kidneys or adrenal glands don’t work well
- You take medication that makes you pee (water pills or diuretics)
It’s possible, but rare, to get hypokalemia from having too little potassium in your diet. Other things sometimes cause it, too, like:
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Sweating a lot
- Folic acid deficiency
- Certain antibiotics
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (high levels of acids called ketones in your blood)
- Laxatives taken over a long period of time
- Certain types of tobacco
- Some asthma medications
- Low magnesium
Several syndromes can be associated with low potassium, such as:
- Cushing's syndrome
- Gitelman syndrome
- Liddle syndrome
- Bartter syndrome
- Fanconi syndrome
Women tend to get hypokalemia more often than men.
If your problem is temporary, or you’re only slightly hypokalemic, you might not feel any symptoms. Once your potassium levels fall below a certain level, you might experience:
Hypokalemia can affect your kidneys. You may have to go to the bathroom more often. You may also feel thirsty.
You may notice muscle problems during exercise. In severe cases, muscle weakness can lead to paralysis and possibly respiratory failure.
You will need a blood test for your doctor to find out if you have hypokalemia. He will ask you about your health history. He’ll want to know if you’ve had any illness that involved vomiting or diarrhea. He’ll ask about any conditions you might have that could be causing it.
You may take a urine test so your doctor can find out if you’re losing potassium when you pee.
Since low potassium sometimes can affect your blood pressure, your doctor will check that, too. He also may want to do an electrocardiogram (EKG) if he thinks you may have arrhythmia. This is one of the more serious side effects, and might change the way your doctor chooses to treat the problem.
- If your potassium level is dangerously low
- If taking supplements don’t raise your potassium levels
- If your low potassium levels cause abnormal heart rhythms
When your hypokalemia is a result of another medical condition, your doctor will help you treat that. If you have low potassium because of diuretics, he may take you off them. Sometimes that makes the condition go away.
Always check with your doctor before you stop any medicine. Also, ask him before you take any potassium supplements. This might cause too much potassium to build up in your system, which could lead to hyperkalemia.