What causes it?
The low potassium level has many causes but usually results in vomiting, diarrhea, disorders of the adrenal glands, or the use of diuretics.
The average value of potassium in the blood in adults is 3.5 to 5.3 mEq / L.
A low potassium level can make the muscles feel weak and painful, you can feel contractions or paralysis, and abnormal heart rhythms can develop.
The diagnosis is based on blood tests to measure the level of potassium.
Generally, eating foods rich in potassium or taking potassium supplements orally is all that is needed.
Potassium is one of the body’s electrolytes, minerals that carry an electrical charge when dissolved in bodily fluids such as blood.
Potassium is necessary for cells, muscles, and nerves to function correctly.
What are the symptoms?
Potassium affects how neuromuscular cells release energy (depolarize) and then regenerate (repolarize) that energy.
When potassium levels are low, cells can not repolarize and are unable to trigger energy repeatedly, and muscles and nerves may not function normally.
The effects of low potassium content can cause the following symptoms:
- Muscular weakness,
- Muscle pains,
- Muscle cramps and
- Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat).
Typically, the potassium level becomes low because too much of the digestive tract is lost due to vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive laxative use.
Sometimes excess potassium is excreted in the urine, usually due to drugs that cause the kidneys to excrete excess sodium, water, and potassium (diuretics).
In many adrenal disorders, such as Cushing’s syndrome, the adrenal glands produce too much aldosterone, a hormone that causes the kidneys to excrete large amounts of potassium.
Certain drugs (such as insulin, albuterol, and terbutaline) cause more potassium to move from the blood to the cells and result in hypokalemia.
However, these medications usually cause temporary hypokalemia unless another condition is also causing potassium to be lost.
This condition sometimes occurs or is caused by a low magnesium level in the blood (hypomagnesemia).
Hypokalemia is rarely caused by consuming too little potassium because many foods (such as beans, dark green leaves, potatoes, fish, and bananas) contain potassium.
How is a low potassium level diagnosed?
Routine blood tests can easily measure potassium levels in the blood.
Low potassium is often a potential complication of medication. For example, patients with hypertension treated with diuretics such as hydrochlorothiazide (Hydrodiuril) or furosemide (Lasix) often have their potassium levels controlled.
Patients who become sick with vomiting and diarrhea may develop dehydration and weakness.
Part of the patient’s evaluation may include having their electrolyte levels measured to determine if potassium losses from the body may need to be replaced.
An electrocardiogram can be done when changes are associated with the low potassium content. Sometimes, low potassium content is diagnosed incidentally by finding the electrocardiogram’s characteristic “U” waves.
In severe cases, it can lead to dangerous disorders in the heart rhythm (dysrhythmia).
What is the treatment for the low potassium content?
Blood potassium levels above 3.0 mEq/liter are not considered dangerous or of great concern; They can be treated with potassium replacement orally.
Depending on the patient’s medical condition, other medical problems, and the patient’s symptoms, serum levels below 3.0 mEq/liter may require intravenous replacement.
Decisions are patient-specific and depend on the diagnosis, the circumstances of the disease, and the patient’s ability to tolerate oral fluids and medications.
In the short term, with diseases such as gastroenteritis with vomiting and diarrhea, the body can regulate and restore potassium levels on its own.
However, if it is severe or potassium loss is expected to be ongoing, it may be necessary to replace or supplement potassium.
A small amount of oral potassium may be prescribed in patients taking diuretics since the loss will continue as long as the medication is prescribed.
Oral supplements can come in pill or liquid form, and dosages are measured in mEq (milliequivalents). The standard doses are 10-20mEq per day.
Alternatively, the consumption of potassium-rich foods may be the first option for potassium replacement. Bananas, apricots, oranges, and tomatoes are high in potassium.
Since potassium is excreted in the kidney, blood tests that monitor kidney function can be ordered to predict and prevent potassium levels from increasing too much.
When potassium needs to be administered intravenously, it should be administered slowly. Potassium is irritating to veins and is usually administered at a maximum rate of 10 mEq per hour.
In addition, supplying potassium too quickly can cause heart irritation and promote potentially dangerous rhythms such as ventricular tachycardia.
A Special Situation: Periodic Paralysis
Rarely a particular situation will occur when all the potassium in the body changes to the body’s cells. This reduces blood potassium levels to 1.0 mEq/liter or less.
This causes immediate muscle weakness that the patient can not move and is paralyzed. The arms and legs are the most affected. Rarely breathing and swallowing of muscles may be involved.
Periodic paralysis can be hereditary and precipitated by excessive exercise, a meal high in carbohydrates or salt, or it can occur without apparent cause.
Intravenous potassium replacement therapy is effective, and recovery occurs within 24 hours.
The body can usually maintain potassium levels within the normal range as long as enough potassium is in the diet. When the body loses potassium due to a short-term illness, it can compensate.