Care During Chemotherapy and Beyond
Hypokalemia (Low Potassium)
What Is Hypokalemia?
Hypokalemia is an electrolyte
imbalance and is indicated by a low level of potassium in the blood.
The normal adult value for potassium is 3.5-5.3 mEq/L.
Potassium is one of many electrolytes in your body. It is found inside of cells.
Normal levels of potassium are important for the maintenance of heart, and nervous
What Causes Hypokalemia?
One way your body regulates blood potassium levels is by shifting potassium into
and out of cells. When there is a breakdown or destruction of cells, the electrolyte
potassium moves from inside of the cell to outside of the cell wall. This
shift of potassium into the cells causes hypokalemia. Trauma or insulin excess,
especially if diabetic, can cause a shift of potassium into cells (hypokalemia).
Potassium is excreted (or "flushed out" of your system) by your kidneys. Certain
drugs or conditions may cause your kidneys to excrete excess potassium. This is
the most common cause of hypokalemia.
Other causes of hypokalemia include:
- Increased excretion (or loss) of potassium from your body.
- Some medications may cause potassium loss which can lead to hypokalemia. Common
medications include loop diuretics (such as Furosemide). Other drugs include steroids,
licorice, sometimes aspirin, and certain antibiotics.
- Renal (kidney) dysfunction - your kidneys may not work well due to a condition called
Renal Tubular Acidosis (RTA). Your kidneys will excrete too much potassium. Medications
that cause RTA include Cisplatin and Amphotericin B.
- You may have hypokalemia from a loss of body fluids due to excessive vomiting, diarrhea,
- Endocrine or hormonal problems (such as increased aldosterone levels) - aldosterone
is a hormone that regulates potassium levels. Certain diseases of the endocrine
system, such as Aldosteronism, or Cushing's syndrome, may cause potassium loss.
- Poor dietary intake of potassium
What Are Some Symptoms of Hypokalemia To Look For?
- You may not have any symptoms unless your blood potassium levels are significantly
- You may have muscle weakness, fatigue, or cramps.
- On exam, your healthcare provider may notice your reflexes to be lessened.
- You may have changes on your electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG).
Things You Can Do If Your Blood Test Results Indicate Hypokalemia:
- Follow your healthcare provider's instructions regarding raising your blood potassium
level. If your blood test results show your levels are severely lowered, he or she
may prescribe potassium supplements, either in the pill or an intravenous (IV) form.
- If you are taking heart medication, and you have a chronic (long-term) low blood
potassium level, you may be advised to eat a high potassium diet. Foods that
are high in potassium include most fresh fruits and vegetables. Some specific examples
- Oranges and orange juice
- Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and greens (collard and kale)
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol, as these can cause you to have electrolyte disturbances.
- Follow all of your healthcare provider's recommendations for follow up blood work
and laboratory tests.
Drugs That May Be Prescribed By Your Doctor For Hypokalemia:
When To Call Your Doctor or Health Care Provider About Hypokalemia:
- Severe diarrhea (greater than 5 stools in a day).
- Nausea that interferes with your ability to eat, and is unrelieved by any prescribed
- Vomiting (vomiting more than 4-5 times in a 24 hour period).
- Muscle weakness, or a poor appetite that does not improve.
- Shortness of breath, chest pain or discomfort, should be evaluated immediately.
- Feeling your heart beat rapidly (palpitations).
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Note: We strongly encourage you to talk with your health care professional
about your specific medical condition and treatments. The information contained
in this website is meant to be helpful and educational, but is not a substitute
for medical advice.
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