How to Recognize Symptoms of Low Potassium

Three Methods:Identifying the SignsGetting DiagnosedDetermining the Cause

Your potassium level affects your nerves and communication with muscle cells in the digestive system, heart and all other muscles. Most of the body’s potassium is inside cells and the potassium level in the bloodstream is normally maintained within a specific range by the endocrine system. Hypokalemia is a medical condition in which your potassium levels are low and decreases insulin sensitivity. People with hypokalemia will experience a variety of physical difficulties.

Method 1
Identifying the Signs

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    Watch for early warning signs. The first signs of moderately low potassium can be muscle aches, cramps and abnormal weakness ((including respiratory and gastrointestinal muscle weakness if severe).[1] Low potassium levels won’t allow neuromuscular cells to recharge quickly, which prevents them from firing repeatedly, meaning that muscles have difficulty in contracting.
    • Faintness, muscle spasms, and muscle tingling or numbness can indicate worsening potassium deficiency and should be checked by a physician right away.[2]
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    Get a diagnosis early. Extended or severe low potassium can affect the heart. Low potassium levels can cause change in its proper function. This can include irregular heartbeats, such as dangerous arrhythmia in severe cases. [3] Prolonged low potassium can cause structural and functional changes in the kidney.
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    Be aware of circumstances that can lead to low potassium. If you are experiencing diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting, or weakness, then you may need to have your potassium levels tested. This test involves having blood drawn and getting a basic metabolic panel of tests (BMP)[4] including ones for electrolytes (which include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate).
    • Depending upon your situation, your doctor may alternatively want you to have a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP),[5] which adds liver function tests to the basic panel.

Method 2
Getting Diagnosed

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    Have your potassium level checked. A serum potassium level of less than 3.5 millimoles per liter (mmol/L) may be considered low; the normal range is 3.6-5.2 mmol/L)[6] Additional electrolyte levels such as calcium, glucose, magnesium and phosphorous may be checked at this time.
    • A blood assay may also include the blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatine levels, which are indicators of kidney function.
    • Patients who are taking digitalis also need their digoxin level checked as this medication affects heart rhythm.
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    Have an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). This will monitor the heart’s functioning for signs of damage or other problems.[7] The doctor may have to shave parts of your skin if you have a lot of hair, and she will place 12 electrical leads on your arms, chest and legs. Each lead transmits electrical information about the heart to a monitor for 5 to 10 minutes. The patient should remain as still as possible and it may be necessary to repeat the ECG.
    • Low potassium levels may also be related to low magnesium levels. This could prolong intervals on the EKG and could lead to Torsades de Pointes.[8][9]

Method 3
Determining the Cause

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    Talk to your doctor about diuretic usage. Use of diuretics can contribute directly to low potassium. Some patients with medical conditions such as high blood pressure may require diuretics for treatment. However, if these are leading to low potassium, you may need to talk to your doctor about an alternate medication.[10]
    • Diuretics are a class of medication that includes furosemide and hydrochlorothiazide (HCTZ). Diuretics attempt to relieve high blood pressure by increasing the urination rate. However, this can cause minerals like potassium to be hard to maintain in balanced to the bodily needs, as they are excreted from the body in the urine.
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    Assess your lifestyle for potential causes. While some causes of low potassium are medical, some can be prevented by lifestyle changes. If you drink alcohol excessively, use laxatives too frequently, or constantly sweat profusely, you could be causing your low potassium.[11] Talk to a medical professional about changing these habits or altering your environment to assess the problem.
    • You may need to seek treatment for alcohol addiction if you do not feel that you can drink less on your own.
    • If you overuse laxatives, talk to your physician about how to reduce your reliance on them through natural methods.
    • If you sweat profusely, you may need to change your work or living environment. Keeping cooler, staying hydrated, or taking medical steps to sweat less may be necessary.
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    Get tested for other medical conditions. Low potassium can be an indicator of other serious medical conditions. Chronic kidney disease and diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to low potassium and should be addressed immediately.[12] Additional conditions that may lead to low potassium are a folic acid deficiency or stomach ailments that cause persistent vomiting or diarrhea.
    • Hyperaldosteronism leads to a syndrome that includes hypertension and hypokalemia.[13]
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    Adjust your diet. The best way to increase your potassium level is by eating potassium-rich foods. You can also take a potassium supplement, but be sure to talk to your doctor so that you do not overload on too much potassium. Some potassium-rich foods include:
    • Bananas
    • Avocados
    • Tomatoes
    • Potatoes
    • Spinach
    • Beans and Peas
    • Dried fruits


  • Testing may indicate need for taking liquid or potassium pills to raise the levels of potassium in the blood. (Also, ask your medical team for any underlying causes of your low potassium levels, including diet and various prescription drugs, such as diuretics.)
  • Severe cases of hypokalemia can also be treated medically by injecting a potassium solution directly into the veins or by giving potassium pills orally. Patients suffering from diabetic coma and ketoacidosis may need this intervention.
  • Potassium is a chemical element that only occurs in nature as salts, for example: potassium chloride which is used as a salt substitute, but less desirable, having a different flavor from table salt (sodium chloride). It’s common in seawater and many minerals, and is also an essential element for virtually all organisms.
  • Mild hypokalemia may not require prescribed treatment -- when there are "no symptoms". The physician may simply rely on diet and the body’s ability to correct a low potassium level naturally, by eating foods that are high in potassium.

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Categories: Dietary Supplements