Low Potassium Levels in Your Blood (Hypokalemia)

Overview

What does having low potassium levels in your blood mean?

Low potassium levels in your blood is also called hypokalemia. Normal levels of potassium range from 3.5 mmol/L to 5.1 mmol/L in adults. (Reference ranges are not the exact same at every laboratory). Usually, levels under 2.5 mmol/L are considered to be very serious.

What does potassium do for your body?

Potassium levels are very important in keeping your muscles, nerves, and heart working well. Potassium, an electrolyte, is also important for digestive health and for bone health.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes low potassium levels?

Low potassium can be caused by:

  • Frequent vomiting and/or diarrhea, including diarrhea from abusing laxatives
  • Excessive sweating
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Drugs, including diuretics (which cause urination), antibiotics, and corticosteroids
  • Not taking in enough potassium due to a poor diet (less common)
  • Adrenal disorders (rarely, overactive adrenal disorders such as Cushing’s syndrome, primary aldosteronism)
  • Kidney disease (rarely, renal tubular acidosis)
  • Rarely: colon villous polyps, certain medications, and some rare disorders, such as Liddle syndrome, Bartter’s syndrome, and Gitelman syndrome

What are the symptoms of low potassium levels?

Mild cases of low potassium might not cause symptoms. More severe cases might cause:

Diagnosis and Tests

How are low potassium levels diagnosed?

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • Electrocardiogram to check the heart

Management and Treatment

What is the treatment for low potassium levels?

Potassium supplements are generally prescribed for low potassium levels. If the situation is severe, potassium might be given as an intravenous (IV) solution. If there is a condition that causes the hypokalemia, such as low levels of magnesium or an overactive thyroid, the other condition must be treated also.

What foods provide potassium?

The following is a list of some, but not all, foods that provide potassium:

  • Apricots
  • Artichokes
  • Bananas
  • Beans
  • Beef
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cantaloupes
  • Chicken
  • Fish (many types)
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Lentils
  • Milk
  • Mushrooms
  • Nuts (many kinds)
  • Orange juice
  • Pomegranate
  • Soy milk
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes and tomato products
  • Zucchini

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