What is hypokalemia?

Your body needs a mineral called potassium to work well. Potassium helps your muscles move. It gets nutrients to your cells and helps your nerves send signals to the body. This mineral is especially important for your heart to stay healthy. Hypokalemia means your body's levels of potassium are too low. Normal levels are between 3.6 and 5.2 millimoles per liter. Very low levels are below 2.5. That's considered a medical emergency.

Causes of hypokalemia

Several different things can cause hypokalemia. One of the most common causes is taking prescription medicines that make you urinate more often. These can make your body lose potassium through your urine. You can also develop hypokalemia from sweating excessively or having diarrhea. Both of these things cause your body to lose fluids — and potassium. Other causes of hypokalemia include not getting enough potassium from the foods you eat or vomiting often

Risk factors for hypokalemia

Sometimes using laxatives or diuretics for too long can cause hypokalemia. Or, you might be at risk if you've had an illness that made you sick for a long time. Sometimes, hypokalemia is a result of rare genetic conditions you inherited. You might also have too much of a substance called cortisol in your body. This is a hormone that your body releases when you're stressed.

You can get this condition if you eat clay or too much natural licorice. High doses of penicillin can also put you at risk. If you have diabetes, a magnesium deficiency, adrenal gland issues or hyperthyroid disorder, you're also at risk. Hypokalemia may run in your family. Certain antibiotics or even drinking too much alcohol can also make you more likely to develop hypokalemia.

Symptoms of hypokalemia

At first, you may not notice any symptoms at all. But when your potassium levels are low enough, you may start to feel weak and tired. At first, you may only notice this when you're exercising.

Other symptoms of hypokalemia include:

  • Constipation
  • Muscle cramping
  • Abnormal heartbeat

Diagnosis of hypokalemia

Symptoms only happen when your potassium levels are very low. You may be diagnosed during a regular doctor visit. During a routine physical exam, your doctor may ask about your symptoms. If you've had the flu or another illness recently that caused you to vomit or have diarrhea, be sure to tell your doctor. They can order urine or blood tests to check your mineral and vitamin levels. If your potassium levels are low, your doctor might also have you do an EKG test. This checks your heartbeat. If you have an irregular heartbeat, your doctor can adjust your treatments.

Treatments for hypokalemia

The first step to treating hypokalemia is usually to take potassium supplements. These are pills you can swallow. If your levels are very low, your doctor may also give you an injection of the mineral. However, you'll want to be careful about adding too much potassium too fast. It can cause odd heartbeats. Work with your doctor to get your levels correct.

Your doctor might also:

  • Treat any underlying conditions that may be causing your hypokalemia
  • Have you stop taking diuretics if those are causing your condition

Always check with your doctor before taking potassium supplements. If you take too much, you might be at risk for another condition where you have too much of the mineral. This is called hyperkalemia.

Recovery from hypokalemia

Often, treatment may reverse your symptoms. Other times, you might need to spend some time in the hospital. Your doctor and nurses may need to keep a close eye on you until you get better.

It's also important that you try to eat a potassium-rich diet. Foods that have potassium include:

  • Peas
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Apricots
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cucumbers
  • Mushrooms
  • Cooked spinach
  • Cooked broccoli
  • Potatoes, including sweet potatoes

Adding more of these foods into your diet can help you get more important vitamins and minerals naturally.

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