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Potassium is a mineral found in the foods you eat. It’s also an electrolyte. Electrolytes conduct electrical impulses throughout the body. They assist in a range of essential body functions, including:
- blood pressure
- normal water balance
- muscle contractions
- nerve impulses
- heart rhythm
- pH balance (acidity and alkalinity)
Your body doesn’t produce potassium naturally. So, it’s important to consume the right balance of potassium-rich foods and beverages.
Healthy kidneys maintain normal potassium levels in the body because they remove excess amounts through urine.
The most common source of potassium is from food. Potassium-rich sources include:
- fruits, such as apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples
- vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes
- lean meats
- whole grains
- beans and nuts
Most people get enough potassium by eating a balanced diet. For low potassium levels, a doctor may prescribe the mineral in supplement form. If you have a severe deficiency, you may need intravenous (IV) treatment.
Certain conditions can cause potassium deficiencies, or hypokalemia. These include:
- kidney disease
- overuse of diuretics
- excessive sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting
- magnesium deficiency
- use of antibiotics, such as carbenicillin and penicillin
The symptoms of hypokalemia are different depending on how severe your deficiency is.
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.
However, severe deficiencies can be life-threatening. Signs of a potassium deficiency include:
- extreme fatigue
- muscle spasms, weakness, or cramping
- irregular heartbeat
- constipation, nausea, or vomiting
Hypokalemia is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Your doctor may also order an electrocardiogram of your heart and an arterial blood gas test to measure pH levels in your body.
Too much potassium can cause hyperkalemia. This is rare in people who eat balanced diets. Risk factors for overdose include:
- taking too many potassium supplements
- kidney disease
- prolonged exercise
- cocaine use
- potassium-conserving diuretics
- severe burns
The most obvious symptom of too much potassium is an abnormal heartbeat (arrhythmia). Severe cases can lead to death.
People with mild cases of high potassium rarely have noticeable symptoms. Your doctor should order occasional blood work if you have any risk factors.
There are different treatments for imbalanced potassium levels that depend on if your levels are too high or too low.
Potassium supplements are usually the first course of action for levels that are too low. Supplements are mostly effective if your kidneys are in good shape.
Severe hypokalemia may require IV treatment, especially if you’re experiencing an abnormal heartbeat.
Potassium-sparing diuretics can rid the body of excess sodium. This will help normalize electrolyte levels. But, some diuretics and potassium supplements can be harsh on the digestive tract.
Ask a doctor for wax-coated pills to help prevent digestive issues. Only people with normal kidney function can use potassium-sparing diuretics.
Mild cases of hyperkalemia can be treated with prescription medications that increase potassium excretion. Other methods include diuretics or an enema.
Severe cases may require more complex treatments. Kidney dialysis can remove potassium. This treatment is the preferred for cases of kidney failure.
For people with healthy kidneys, a doctor might recommend insulin and glucose. These help to transport potassium from the blood to cells for removal.
An albuterol inhaler can also lower dangerously high levels. Calcium gluconate may be used temporarily to stabilize the heart and reduce the risk of serious heart complications from hyperkalemia.
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 doctor if you experience any unusual symptoms.