Potassium

Written by Kristeen Cherney
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on May 29, 2013

What is Potassium?

Potassium is a mineral found in foods. It is also an electrolyte, which conducts electrical impulses throughout the body. Potassium assists in a range of essential body functions, including:

  • blood pressure
  • normal water balance
  • muscle contractions
  • nerve impulses
  • digestion
  • heart rhythm
  • pH balance (acidity and alkalinity)

Potassium isn’t produced naturally by the body, so it’s important to consume the right balance of potassium-rich foods and beverages. Consuming too little potassium can lead to serious health consequences, while taking in too much can cause both temporary and long-term health problems. Healthy kidneys maintain normal potassium levels because they remove excess amounts through urine.

Sources of Potassium

Potassium is most commonly derived from foods. Potassium-rich sources include:

  • fruits (apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples)
  • vegetables (leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes)
  • lean meats
  • whole grains
  • beans and nuts

Most people get enough potassium just by eating a balanced diet. For low potassium levels, a doctor may prescribe the mineral in supplemental form. Severe deficiency may warrant intravenous treatments.

Potassium Deficiency

Certain conditions can cause potassium deficiencies, or hypokalemia. These include:

  • kidney disease
  • overuse of diuretics
  • excess sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • magnesium deficiency
  • use of antibiotics, such as carbenicillin and penicillin

Symptoms of hypokalemia depend on the severity of your deficiency. A temporary decrease in potassium may not cause any symptoms. For example, if you sweat a lot from a hard workout, your potassium levels may normalize after eating a meal or drinking electrolytes before any damage is done. Severe deficiency, however, can be life-threatening. Signs of potassium deficiency are:

  • extreme fatigue
  • muscle spasms
  • irregular heartbeat
  • constipation

Hypokalemia is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Your doctor may also order an electrocardiogram of the heart, as well as an arterial blood gas test to measure pH levels in the body.

Potassium Overdose

When not monitored carefully, too much potassium can cause hyperkalemia. This is rare for people who eat balanced diets. Risk factors for overdose include:

  • taking too many potassium supplements
  • kidney disease
  • prolonged exercise
  • cocaine overdose
  • potassium-conserving diuretics
  • chemotherapy
  • diabetes
  • severe burns

The most obvious symptom of a potassium overdose is an abnormal heartbeat. Severe cases can lead to death. Mild cases don’t exhibit symptoms, so your doctor should order occasional blood work if you have any risk factors.

Potassium Treatment

In cases of potassium deficiency, the first course of action for treatment is usually supplements. This is mostly effective if your kidneys are in good shape. Severe hypokalemia may require intravenous treatment, especially if you’re experiencing an abnormal heartbeat.

Potassium-sparing diuretics can rid the body of excess sodium, which helps normalize electrolyte levels. However, some diuretics and potassium supplements can be harsh on the digestive tract. Ask a doctor for wax-coated pills to help prevent digestive ailments. Potassium-sparing diuretics can only be used in patients with normal kidney function.

Hyperkalemia

When there is too much potassium in the blood, mild cases can be treated with prescription medications that decrease potassium excretion. Other methods include diuretics or an enema.

Severe cases may require more complex treatments. Kidney dialysis can remove potassium. This is the preferred treatment for cases of kidney failure. For patients with healthy kidneys, a doctor might recommend doses of insulin and glucose. These help to transport potassium from the blood to cells for removal. An albuterol inhaler can also lower dangerously high levels.

Prognosis

Changes in body potassium may not be a concern if you don’t have risk factors. Healthy kidneys are often enough to regulate body potassium. Medical conditions that affect levels should be monitored regularly. Call your physician if you experience any unusual symptoms.

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