What is hypokalemia?
Hypokalemia (hi-po-kah-LE-me-ah) is a condition where the level of potassium in your blood is lower than normal. Potassium is an electrolyte (mineral) that is normally found in the body and keeps your body working properly. Potassium helps control how your muscles, heart, and digestive system work by moving into and out of cells. Most of the potassium in the body is found inside the cells. Hypokalemia happens when too little potassium stays in the blood. Hypokalemia may be more serious in people with heart problems.
What causes hypokalemia?
Hypokalemia is caused by a decrease in potassium going inside the body or an increased amount going out. It may also be caused by too much potassium moving from the blood into the cells. Any of the following conditions can lead to hypokalemia:
- Not eating enough potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, tomatoes, oranges, turkey and milk. Frequently eating foods or drinking liquids that contain caffeine may also lead to hypokalemia. Caffeine is in some coffees, teas, sodas, and chocolates.
- Certain medicines, such as diuretics (water pills), heart or blood pressure medicines, insulin, steroids, or antibiotics. Barium (type of metal) poisoning or laxative (bowel movement softener) abuse may also lead to hypokalemia.
- Heavy sweating during an intense and prolonged physical activity.
- Medical conditions, such as Cushing's syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, frequent diarrhea (loose bowel movement), or kidney problems. Too much body fluid loss, such as in large burns and vomiting (throwing up), may lead to hypokalemia.
What are the signs and symptoms of hypokalemia?
You may have any of the following:
- Constipation (dry, hard bowel movement)
- Fast or irregular heartbeats.
- Frequent urination or passing of large amounts of urine.
- Muscle twitching or a feeling of pins and needles on the skin.
- Muscle weakness or paralysis (cannot move). Legs may be more affected than the arms.
How is hypokalemia diagnosed?
Your caregiver will take a detailed health history from you. This includes when and how the symptoms started, medicines you have taken, or medical conditions you may have had. You may need any of the following tests:
- Heart monitor: This test is also called an EKG or ECG. Sticky pads are placed on your skin to record your heart's electrical activity. An EKG gives information about how your heart is working. Lie as still as possible during the test.
- Serum potassium: Your blood will be checked for the level of potassium. You have hypokalemia if your blood potassium level is lower than 3.7 mmol/L (millimoles per liter).
How is hypokalemia treated?
It is important to know and treat the cause of your hypokalemia. If hypokalemia is caused by another medical condition, treatment of that condition is also needed. If you have no symptoms and have mild hypokalemia, your potassium level may not be corrected right away. Treatment may be through eating foods high in potassium or taking potassium supplements. Immediate replacement of potassium may be needed in patients with heart problems or with severe symptoms. The amount of potassium to be given will be based on the amount of potassium in your blood. Potassium medicine may be taken orally (through mouth) or injected to your veins (IV).
You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.
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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.