What is hypokalemia?
Hypokalemia refers that the amount of potassium in your blood is lower than normal. Potassium is one of the most important minerals present in your body. For example, a very low blood level of potassium can lead to serious and even fatal heart rhythm problems.
You can have potassium from various different food items. Normally, your body keeps only as much potassium as it needs and gets rid of the rest.
What is the cause of hypokalemia?
There are many ways by which hypokalemia can happen. Often it happens because your body is losing more liquid than normal. You may lose more fluid:
- If you had a lot of vomiting or diarrhea.
- If you are taking medicine that makes the body to release too much potassium. For example, some diuretics help the body get rid of fluid by causing you to urinate more. You may lose more potassium in the urine.
Hormone problems are another cause of low potassium. For example:
- There are chances that you may have too much aldosterone, which is a hormone that controls how much potassium is in your body.
- You may have too much cortisol. This may happen because the body is making too much. Or it may happen if you are taking cortisol medicine (called steroids or corticosteroids).
Other possible causes of low potassium are:
How is hypokalemia diagnosed?
- You are not getting perfect amount of potassium from your diet or from potassium supplements prescribed by your doctor.
- You have been sweating a lot during exercise.
- You have kidney disease that causes you to get rid of too much potassium.
- You have an eating disorder, such as bulimia.
Low potassium is diagnosed with a blood test.
- The normal potassium range for adults in most labs is 3.5 to 5.5 milliequivalents (mEq) per liter. This range may vary slightly from lab to lab.
- Less than 3.5 mEq/L is considered hypokalemia.
- Less than 2.5 mEq/L is considered severe hypokalemia.
If you are having one of the more uncommon reasons for having low potassium, you will need more tests, like:
- Other blood tests
- Urine tests
- Specific X-rays or scans of your kidneys and pituitary gland
What are the symptoms of hypokalemia?
Generally, it does not cause any symptoms when hypokalemia is mild. When hypokalemia is severe and does cause symptoms, the most common one is tiredness, especially of the muscles. The muscles may feel weak and they may tend to cramp.
If your potassium gets too low, it can also affect the heart muscle and the heart’s rhythm. Your heartbeat may become fast or irregular if you are suffering from hypokalemia.
How is hypokalemia treated?
For the common causes of low potassium, like stomach flu or heavy exercise, you can usually replace lost potassium by eating foods rich in potassium or by drinking sports drinks.
If you are taking a diuretic medicine that makes you lose potassium, you may need to eat foods that have a lot of potassium every day, or you may need to take potassium tablets every day.
You can ask your doctor if a diuretic that helps you keep your potassium would work for you. You may have blood tests on a regular basis to check your potassium level.
If your hypokalemia is major, you need treatment right away that may involve getting potassium by IV (by vein) so you can raise your level of potassium quickly to prevent heart complications.
The underlying problem will need to be treated if low potassium is caused by an underlying medical problem, like too much aldosterone or cortisol.