A potassium deficiency or hypokalemia can cause damage to the body, particularly to the muscles and nerves, if it is left untreated. Knowing the signs of a potassium deficiency can help you seek treatment before they become severe; helping to prevent much of this damage and undo the painful affects you have been suffering. In most cases, home care can help eliminate a potassium deficiency, but if the symptoms are extreme or have gone on for several days, you may need to seek out medical attention to efficiently treat hypokalemia.
Potassium is a mineral which acts as an electrolyte. It helps to create proper function in the muscular system, including maintaining healthy heart muscles. It also assists in the generation and preservation of nerve cells, as well as the converting glucose to glycogen. Potassium acts as a natural diuretic, which is absorbed during digestion and the excess is excreted to maintain a steady pH level.
Those who have a shortage of potassium in their system can become susceptible to many medical conditions including acne, fatigue, kidney stones or allergies. A consistent deficiency of potassium will also limit the amount of healthy growth your body can maintain. You typically have 3.6-5.2 millioles per liter (mmol/L) of potassium in your blood stream. If your potassium levels drop below 2.5 mmol/L it can be very dangerous and will require medical attention as soon as possible.
Symptoms and Complications of Potassium Deficiency
If you are suffering from hypokalemia, you will feel fatigued. It may be difficult to stay awake or you may feel like you do not have enough energy to complete physical tasks. You may experience muscle weakness or your muscles will spasm. This can include an abnormal heart rhythm, especially in those that regularly develop a potassium deficiency. The muscles may cramp and it can become difficult or painful to move. Patients will become constipated and may begin to experience digestive trouble. If this is left unchecked, it can lead to permanent muscle damage or paralysis, and kidney damage or hypokalemic nephropathy.
Causes of Potassium Deficiency
Excrete excessive potassium. The body develops a potassium deficiency when it is excreting more potassium than it is taking in. In moderate cases, this is because the patient's diet is low in potassium rich foods, so their body is not being provided an adequate supply for proper bodily function. Excessive sweating, vomiting or diarrhea can also rid the body of its potassium supply before it can be used. In some cases, the body will excessively excrete potassium in the urine or excrement, causing a deficiency.
Some medications lower the body's potassium levels, and limit the body's ability to store potassium properly. Using laxatives or medical diuretics can cause the body to excrete excessive amounts of potassium or a failure to absorb potassium from diet-based sources.
Some medical conditions also make the body susceptible to a potassium deficiency. Kidney failure or diabetic ketoacidosis can frequently cause the body to become potassium deficient. Some hereditary conditions such as Gitelman or Bartter syndrome create defects in the rental salt transporters.
Treatments for Potassium Deficiency
Altering the diet can help relieve a potassium deficiency and reduce the risk that it will happen again. Foods rich in potassium include bananas, oranges, carrots, avocados, kiwi, dried figs, tomatoes, spinach, seaweed, beans, peas, molasses, lima beans, bran, milk, peanut butter or wheat germ.
Rehydration. Those who are experiencing a potassium deficiency because they are sweating excessively will need to rehydrate in order to relieve their symptoms. Do not drink water at this time because this can flush out the system, rinsing away more potassium and increasing your system. Instead, consume an electrolyte solution or sports drink which contains high levels of potassium that can reduce or eliminate the deficiency.
Removing constipation or diarrhea. Those suffering from extreme constipation or diarrhea will need to treat these symptoms in order to eliminate their hypokalemia or the body will continue to lose potassium. Those suffering from diarrhea should work to stay hydrated and eliminate foods which are hard to digest such as red meat, spicy foods or dairy until their system has returned to normal. Do not take medication for diarrhea unless you have been instructed to do so by your doctor as this is the body's way of eliminating dangerous materials from the digestive system. Those experiencing constipation should consume foods high in fiber that can help to relieve their distress, and should consume plenty of fluids to help release the materials trapped in the digestive tract. Constipation medication can also be used to relieve these symptoms.
Medications are available to help increase the potassium levels in the body. Your doctor can prescribe medications for those who have a physical ailment that prevents them from maintaining a healthy potassium level. These can also be prescribed to thyroid patients who have too much of this hormone in the blood, reducing healthy potassium levels. Most medications are taken orally but if your symptoms are extreme, an IV can be used to transmit a potassium-based solution into the blood stream to help raise potassium levels quickly in the event of a hypokalemia attack.
When to See a Doctor
If you have been vomiting or experiencing excessive diarrhea for several days it is important to seek medical attention to ensure that you are not developing a potassium deficiency. Those who have been treated with diuretics and who begin to show symptoms of a potassium deficiency should also contact a medical professional right away.