Low potassium (hypokalemia)

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Definition

Low potassium (hypokalemia) refers to a lower than normal potassium level in your bloodstream. Potassium is a chemical (electrolyte) that is critical to the proper functioning of nerve and muscles cells, particularly heart muscle cells.

Normally, your blood potassium level is 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/L). A very low potassium level (less than 2.5 mmol/L) can be life-threatening and requires urgent medical attention.

Causes

Low potassium (hypokalemia) has many causes. The most common cause is excessive potassium loss in urine due to prescription water or fluid pills (diuretics). Vomiting or diarrhea or both can result in excessive potassium loss from the digestive tract. Only rarely is low potassium caused by not getting enough potassium in your diet.

Causes of potassium loss leading to low potassium include:

  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Excessive laxative use
  • Excessive sweating
  • Folic acid deficiency
  • Prescription water or fluid pills (diuretics) use
  • Primary aldosteronism
  • Vomiting
  • Some antibiotic use

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