Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on December 5, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 5, 2013

What Is Hypokalemia?

Hypokalemia occurs when the blood’s potassium levels are too low. A normal level of potassium is 3.6-5.2 millimoles per liter. Levels below 3.6 are considered low. Anything below 2.5 millimoles per liter is very low (Mayo Clinic).

Potassium is an electrolyte. It is necessary for nerve and muscle cell functioning. It is especially important for the functioning of muscle cells in the heart. The kidneys control potassium levels. Excess potassium leaves the body through urine or sweat.

Hypokalemia is also called hypokalemic syndrome, low potassium syndrome, nephritis, and hypopotassemia syndrome.

What Causes Hypokalemia?

Hypokalemia is a symptom or side effect of other conditions and some medications. Hypokalemia usually occurs when too much potassium is lost through urine, sweat, or bowel movements. In rare cases, hypokalemia is caused by too little potassium intake.

Many things can cause potassium loss. The most common cause is the use of diuretics, or pills that cause urine production. Diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive use of laxatives can also cause symptoms. Excessive sweating due to heat or exercise can cause hypokalemia.

Other causes of hypokalemia include:

  • consuming large amounts of caffeine or licorice
  • medication (such as penicillin or diuretics)
  • magnesium deficiency
  • kidney failure
  • complications from diabetes
  • adrenal gland issues
  • gastrointestinal infections or tumors
  • malnutrition
  • hyperthyroidism

What Are the Symptoms of Hypokalemia?

There are usually no signs of hypokalemia. Some people suffer from weakness, fatigue, constipation, and muscle cramping. In more severe cases, heart arrhythmias, or abnormal rhythms may occur. This is most common in people with heart problems.

Other potential complications include low blood pressure, muscle twitches, and loss of muscle control (such as in the bowel). Hypokalemia can also cause mineral deficiency and loss of muscle in the skeletal system. Other symptoms include excessive urination, extreme thirst, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting.

How Is Hypokalemia Diagnosed?

Hypokalemia is usually diagnosed during routine blood tests, which check the levels of potassium in the blood. Testing because of symptoms or complications is rare.

How Is Hypokalemia Treated?

A doctor may prescribe medication that will treat the underlying condition. In some cases, potassium supplements are recommended.

What Is the Outlook For Hypokalemia?

Treating the underlying condition usually resolves this problem. Most people learn to control their potassium with minimal impact on their lives.

In rare cases, hypokalemia can lead to paralysis or respiratory failure.

Potassium-Rich Diet

Eating a diet that is rich in potassium can help prevent and treat low blood potassium. If you are taking potassium supplements, discuss your diet with your doctor to make sure you are not taking too much potassium. Good sources of potassium include:

  • avocados
  • bananas
  • figs
  • kiwi
  • oranges
  • spinach
  • tomatoes
  • milk
  • peas and beans
  • peanut butter
  • bran
Was this article helpful? Yes No

Send us your feedback

Thank you.

Your message has been sent.

We're sorry, an error occurred.

We are unable to collect your feedback at this time. However, your feedback is important to us. Please try again later.

Show Sources

Read This Next

Healthy Smoothie Recipes
Healthy Smoothie Recipes
From vegetable recipes to berry-packed beverages, we’ve discovered the top tasty smoothies – rich in vitamins and antioxidants, to help prevent disease.
10 Food Tips to Help Ease the Winter Blues
10 Food Tips to Help Ease the Winter Blues
Want to supplement your seasonal depression treatment? Start with your plate. Learn more by clicking your way through this slideshow.
The 8 Most Nutritious Nightshade Plants
The 8 Most Nutritious Nightshade Plants
Nightshade vegetables are a broad group of plants from the Solanum and Capsicum families. Nightshade plants contain a poison called solanine.
Kidney Disease: High- and Low-Potassium Foods
Kidney Disease: High- and Low-Potassium Foods
People who have problems with their kidneys need to watch how much potassium they include in their diet. That is because the kidneys regulate potassium.
Foods That Can Improve Sleep
Foods That Can Improve Sleep
Get expert advice on foods that can improve your sleep, including foods with tryptophan, foods with melatonin, and herbal teas like chamomile and passionflower.