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Low Potassium or Hypokalemia: Meaning, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Team AckoJan 18, 2024

Potassium is an essential mineral in your body that helps your muscles, neurons, and heart function properly. It is found predominantly in skeletal muscle and bone, and it works with sodium to maintain the correct flow of body fluids between cells. Hypokalemia is a metabolic disorder characterised by severely Low Potassium levels in the blood. Here’s an overview. 




What is Hypokalemia?

Hypokalaemia refers to a condition in which a person's body does not get enough Potassium (PTS). It could be related to a poor diet or diarrhoea, or vomiting.

Our kidneys manage the proper PTS levels in the body through the excretion of urine. When the kidneys are healthy, and the amount of PTS in the food is sufficient, your body utilises it optimally, and any excess is usually eliminated through urine and sweat.

In Hypokalemia, there is an imbalance that occurs as a result of a malfunction in this natural mechanism. As a result, there may be a rapid loss of urine or sweat without adequate PTS replacement. The normal level of PTS in an adult ranges from 3.5 to 5.2 mmol/L. Anything below 3 mmol/L is considered severe Hypokalemia.

Why is Potassium important?

Potassium is a vital mineral that serves many functions in our body. It is mostly obtained by our body through food. Its primary roles of PTS are as follows.

  • Regulating the contractions of muscles

  • Nerve signal transmission

  • Fluid regulation

Small changes in Potassium levels can have an impact on our body functions. It maintains electrical activity in our body's cells. When this level falls, it has an effect on cells with high electrical activity, such as neurons, muscles, and the heart. When your PTS levels fall too low, you may have symptoms such as weakness, an inability to move, passing out, or an irregular pulse.

What causes Hypokalemia?

Hypokalemia can occur due to the following health conditions.

  • Chronic diarrhoea, overuse of diuretics or laxatives, irritable bowel disease, or infections

  • Medications that may include antimicrobials, beta 2-agonists, diuretics, insulin, theophylline, corticosteroids, and laxatives

  • Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, purging, or abuse of laxatives

  • Adrenal disorders, such as Cushing’s syndrome and primary aldosteronism

  • Chronic kidney disease

  • Low magnesium levels (hypomagnesaemia)

  • Kidney disorders, including Bartter syndrome, Gitelman syndrome, and Fanconi syndrome

  • Overconsumption of Licorice

  • Sweating excessively

Symptoms of Hypokalemia

Here are some common symptoms of Potassium deficiency.

1. Weakness and fatigue

The initial indicators of Low Potassium are weakness and lethargy because Potassium aids in the regulation of muscular contractions. When your blood PTS levels are low, your muscles contract more slowly. Additionally, a lack of PTS may impair how your body utilises nutrition, resulting in fatigue. Research suggests that a deficit in PTS could impede insulin production, increase blood sugar levels, and decrease available glucose, which serves as energy for your cells.

2. Muscle weakness and cramping

Potassium helps relay information from your brain to produce contractions inside the skeletal muscle. It also helps stop these contractions by leaving the muscle cells. Your brain cannot send these messages as efficiently when your blood PTS levels are low.

This causes long-lasting contractions and may contribute to muscle cramps. Cramps are rarely seen in mild or moderate Hypokalemia. However, they can develop in severe Hypokalemia of less than 2.5 mmol/L of PTS.

3. Digestion issues

Potassium aids in the transmission of information from the brain to smooth muscle in the digestive system. These electrical impulses cause muscle contractions in your digestive system, which help it churn and propel food so it can be digested smoothly. With Hypokalemia, digestive contractions may become weaker, and food movement may be hindered. This could result in digestive issues such as constipation and bloating.

4. Abnormal heartbeat

Potassium is also essential for maintaining proper cardiac muscle contractions. This is due to the fact that the movement of PTS in and out of cardiac cells helps control your heartbeat. Low PTS levels in the blood can disrupt this flow, resulting in abnormal cardiac rhythms known as arrhythmia, which could be an indicator of a serious heart problem.

5. Difficulty breathing

Breathing necessitates the use of several muscles, particularly the diaphragm, to assist the lungs in inhaling and exhaling air. When your levels of PTS are extremely low, your lungs may not efficiently expand and contract, resulting in shortness of breath. A severe PTS deficiency might even cause the lungs to stop working, which can be life-threatening. According to one study, those with high or Low Potassium levels are at much greater risk of respiratory failure.

6. Numbness and tingling sensation

PTS is vital for the normal functioning of the nerves. Low Potassium levels can impair nerve signalling, causing tingling and numbness. While having these sensations on occasion is safe, recurrent sensations and numbness may indicate an underlying issue. If you have this problem, you should see a doctor.

7.  Frequent urination (polyuria)

Polyuria is a medical disorder in which you urinate more frequently than usual. The kidneys are in charge of maintaining your body's fluid and electrolyte levels as well as removing waste through urine. Low Potassium levels may hinder your kidneys' capacity to concentrate urine and regulate electrolyte levels in the blood, resulting in excessive urination.

8. High blood pressure

Maintaining a proper electrolyte balance is necessary for maintaining normal blood pressure. PTS supports your kidneys in excreting extra salt through urine. If there is insufficient PTS in the blood, the kidneys absorb sodium back into the bloodstream, which can gradually give rise to high blood pressure. This is most commonly associated with low dietary PTS intake. 

How is Hypokalemia treated?

Mild to moderate Hypokalemia is commonly treated with oral PTS supplements. In some circumstances, your doctor may also need to change medication or address issues like diarrhoea, vomiting, or eating disorders.

A Potassium-rich diet is usually not sufficient for treating Hypokalaemia since most PTS in food is associated with phosphate rather than PTS chloride. Because Hypokalaemia is frequently associated with a chloride deficiency, it's recommended to treat both deficiencies with PTS chloride supplements.

Usually, 60-80 mmol of supplements each day for a few days to weeks is enough to treat mild to moderate conditions. However, it should only be done with the recommendation of a healthcare practitioner. In cases of severe Hypokalemia, intravenous (IV) therapy may be considered. However, this should be constantly monitored by a healthcare practitioner. 

Sources of Potassium-rich foods

Food items that are rich in Potassium include the following.

  • Potatoes

  • Bananas

  • Spinach

  • Avocados

  • Dark leafy greens

  • Beans and peas

  • Oranges

  • Milk

  • Tomatoes

  • Bran

  • Fish

  • Peanut butter

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here are some FAQs about Low Potassium or Hypokalemia.


What causes Low Potassium?

The primary causes of Low Potassium may include the following.

  • Chronic diarrhoea, overuse of diuretics or laxatives, irritable bowel disease, or infections can all contribute to low PTS

  • Certain medications

  • Eating disorders 

  • Adrenal disordersChronic kidney disease

  • Low magnesium levels (hypomagnesaemia)

  • Kidney disorders, including Bartter syndrome, Gitelman syndrome, and Fanconi syndrome

  • Overconsumption of Licorice

  • Sweating excessively

What is the best treatment for Hypokalaemia?

Mild to moderate condition is commonly treated with oral PTS supplements. The majority of Hypokalaemia cases are caused by chloride depletion. Hence, they respond best to PTS chloride supplementation. Intravenous (IV) therapy may be considered if oral supplementation is not well tolerated.

What are the symptoms of Low Potassium or Hypokalemia?

The symptoms of Hypokalemia may include weakness and fatigue, muscle weakness and cramping, digestion issues, an abnormal heartbeat, difficulty breathing, numbness and tingling sensations, frequent urination (polyuria), and high blood pressure.


Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.


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