Potassium is an element that is essential to our health; it is vital in nerve activity and in muscle usage. Hypokalemia – or low potassium – is a condition whereby an individual is not getting the required amounts of potassium into their system. Low potassium symptoms are varied, and in some cases there are none reported, but the condition can cause the patient to feel distinctly unwell. Loss of potassium in small amounts is not a problem and can be easily treated, but in serious cases the lack of potassium can affect the operation of the heart and has been known to be fatal. We will look at the symptoms and causes of low potassium, how it is treated and tell you all you need to know about hypokalemia.
Low Potassium Symptoms
First, it is important to understand that we humans get our potassium input from our diet. Poor diet may lead to low potassium levels, and the symptoms are many. A small deficiency in potassium is unlikely to register any symptoms, and nor is it a major problem, but more serious cases will find the patient reporting some, or all, of the following:
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Muscle weakness, damage or spasms
- Paralysis – in extreme cases
Should any of the above be experienced it is important to seek medical help. Fortunately, treatment for low potassium is relatively simple, and is generally very successful.
Before we go on to look at the causes of low potassium, a brief overview of what it is all about and how it affects us. As we touched on earlier, potassium is an important element in our body. It plays a large part in keeping our nerves active and our muscles healthy, and it can have an effect on how the heart operates. A severe lack of potassium can lead to paralysis, which can be fatal, and also it can lead to the heart operating inefficiently. It is not uncommon for individuals to suffer from a minor lack of potassium, although serious cases are not common at all. Some foods are rich in potassium and are a recommended part of your diet; among them are:
- Kiwi Fruit
These are just a few of the more common foods that are potassium rich, and if you are worried about your potassium intake a dietician will be able to help.
There are many factors that can influence the level of potassium in the body, and as we get our potassium from food it is no surprise that diet is among them. The foods listed above should help, but there are other influencing factors that should be considered, including:
- Antibiotics – many popular antibiotics can have a negative effect on potassium levels
- Diarrhoea – a common cause of potassium deficiency
- Diuretics – these can lead to excessive urination, and potassium is expelled in urine
- Kidney complaints
- Eating disorders – bulimia and a generally poor diet are factors
- Vomiting and sweating
- An excess intake of liquorice – unlikely, but true
- Magnesium deficiency
All of the above are well known factors that influence our potassium levels, and can be treated easily if identified as the cause.
If any of the symptoms above present themselves to you then you need to seek diagnosis for low potassium. Ignoring the symptoms, and allowing the situation to worsen, can be dangerous. Your doctor will take a blood sample and it will be tested for many things as well as potassium, including:
- Glucose levels
- Magnesium content
- Calcium levels
These, and other substances, can help to determine whether your potassium levels are sufficiently low to be of concern. You may also be subjected to an ECG to check the way your heart is operating. Diagnosis is quite simple, and the results should be quite conclusive.
Treatment for low potassium is generally straightforward and successful, and can take many forms. Your doctor may try in the first instance taking you off any antibiotics that may be the root of the problem, as finding the cause is the first step in treating low potassium. Likewise, you may have to change to a diuretic that does not expel potassium, as this is a common cause of the problem. You may also take potassium supplements, usually in the form of pills, as these can help, and you may be asked to look at revising your diet so that you get a more balanced intake of potassium. In general, potassium supplements and dietary changes are sufficient to treat a standard case of hypokalemia, and the condition is usually rectified with ease.
Is Low Potassium Dangerous with Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVC’s)?
Any abnormal heartbeat should be investigated, and PVC’s – while not usually dangerous – can be so in patients with hypokalemia. As low potassium can cause paralysis it is vital that this condition is investigated, and by the right people. Specialist care is needed and treatment should be sought immediately, so as to minimise the risk of paralysis and cardiac arrest.
This article is intended to help you understand the problems associated with low potassium levels in the body, how you can recognise the symptoms, and what you should do to rectify the problem. We hope it has allowed you to understand all you need to know about hypokalemia, and why potassium is so important to our health.