Healthcare Library

Spanish Version
Print-Friendly
Bookmarks
bookmarks-menu

Low blood potassium

Potassium - low; Low blood potassium; Hypokalemia

Low blood potassium level is a condition in which the amount of potassium in the blood is lower than normal. The medical name of this condition is hypokalemia. 

Causes

Potassium is an electrolyte (mineral). It is needed for cells to function properly. You get potassium through food. The kidneys remove excess potassium through the urinary system to keep a proper balance of the mineral in the body.

Common causes of low blood potassium include:

Symptoms

A small drop in potassium level often does not cause symptoms, which may be mild, and may include:

  • Constipation
  • Feeling of skipped heart beats or palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle damage
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • Tingling or numbness

A large drop in potassium level may lead to abnormal heart rhythms, especially in people with heart disease. This can cause you to feel lightheaded or faint. A very low potassium level can even cause your heart to stop.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will order a blood test to check your potassium level. Normal range is 3.7 to 5.2 mEq/L (3.7 to 5.2 mmol/L).

Other blood tests may be ordered to check levels of:

An electrocardiogram (ECG) to check the heart may also be done.

Treatment

If your condition is mild, your provider will likely prescribe oral potassium pills. If your condition is severe, you may need to get potassium through a vein (IV).

If you need diuretics, your provider may:

  • Switch you to a form that keeps potassium in the body. This type of diuretic is called potassium-sparing.
  • Prescribe extra potassium for you to take every day.

Eating foods rich in potassium can help treat and prevent low level of potassium. These foods include:

  • Avocados
  • Baked potato
  • Bananas
  • Bran
  • Carrots
  • Cooked lean beef
  • Milk
  • Oranges
  • Peanut butter
  • Peas and beans
  • Salmon
  • Seaweed
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat germ

Outlook (Prognosis)

Taking potassium supplements can usually correct the problem. In severe cases, without proper treatment, a severe drop in potassium level can lead to serious heart rhythm problems that can be fatal.

Possible Complications

In severe cases, life-threatening paralysis may develop, such as with hypokalemic periodic paralysis.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider right away if you have been vomiting or have had excessive diarrhea, or if you are taking diuretics and have symptoms of hypokalemia.

References

Mount DB. Disorders of potassium balance. In: Skorecki K, Chertow GM, Marsden PA, Taal MW, Yu ASL, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 18.

Seifter JL. Potassium disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 117.

    • Blood test

      Blood test - illustration

      Blood is drawn from a vein (venipuncture), usually from the inside of the elbow or the back of the hand. A needle is inserted into the vein, and the blood is collected in an air-tight vial or a syringe. Preparation may vary depending on the specific test.

      Blood test

      illustration

      • Blood test

        Blood test - illustration

        Blood is drawn from a vein (venipuncture), usually from the inside of the elbow or the back of the hand. A needle is inserted into the vein, and the blood is collected in an air-tight vial or a syringe. Preparation may vary depending on the specific test.

        Blood test

        illustration

      A Closer Look

       

      Self Care

       

      Tests for Low blood potassium

       

      Review Date: 4/8/2019

      Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

      The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
      adam.com

       
       
       

       

       

      A.D.A.M. content is best viewed in IE9 or above, Firefox and Google Chrome browser.
      Content is best viewed in IE9 or above, Firefox and Google Chrome browser.

      ways to give

      view all

      news room

      view all

      healthcare library

      view all
      Event Calendar

      Hunterdon Healthcare offers an array of educational events, including childbirth, healthy living and fitness classes.

      LEARN MORE
      Health and Wellness Centers

      Where health and fitness meet to help you stay healthy at every age.

      LEARN MORE
      Heart & Vascular

      Heart and Vascular Services Department brings world-class cardiovascular care to our community.

      LEARN MORE