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Hypokalemia

Definition

Hypokalemia is a low level of potassium in the blood. Potassium is a mineral. It helps the heart, kidneys, and other organs to work well. Low levels can lead to problems with nerves and muscles. It can also cause an irregular heart rate.

Causes

Potassium enters the body through food and digestion. It passes out of the blood through the kidneys. Hypokalemia occurs when the body does not absorb enough potassium. This can happen when the kidneys remove too much of it. It can also happen when it moves from the blood into the cells.

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of this problem are:
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Excess sweating
  • Poor diet
  • Taking certain medicines, such as diuretics or beta-2-adrenergenic agonists
  • Poorly-controlled diabetes
  • Alcohol use disorder or withdrawal
  • Eating disorders
  • Kidney disease or failure
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Symptoms

There may be no symptoms in the early stages. When they happen, they may be:
  • Muscle pain, cramps, or weakness
  • Feeling tired
  • Problems passing stool
  • Urinating more than normal
  • Fainting
  • Fast heartbeat

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done.
This condition is diagnosed with blood and urine tests. An ECG may be given to test the electrical activity of the heart. More tests may be done to look for a cause.

Treatment

Underlying causes will need to be treated. The goal is to raise the potassium level in the body. Options may be:
  • Replacing potassium by IV or supplements
  • Making dietary changes to raise potassium levels
  • Changing or stopping medicines that are causing problems

Prevention

To help lower the risk of hypokalemia:
  • Eat foods that are high in potassium.
  • Manage conditions such as diabetes.

RESOURCES

The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists
https://www.aace.com
Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians
https://www.familydoctor.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

The Canadian Society of Endocrinology and Metabolism
http://www.endo-metab.ca
Health Canada
https://www.canada.ca

References

Hypokalemia. NORD—National Organization for Rare Disorders website. Available at: https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/hypokalemia. Accessed January 6, 2021.
Hypokalemia—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/hypokalemia-approach-to-the-patient .Accessed Januray 6, 2021.
Tinawi M. Hypokalemia: a practical approach to diagnosis and treatment. Archives of Clinical and Biomedical Research 4 (2020): 048-066.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
  • Review Date: 02/2020
  • Update Date: 01/06/2021
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