An abnormally low level of potassium (K+) is called hypokalemia. The adrenal gland makes a hormone (aldosterone) that signals the kidneys to excrete or conserve potassium, based on the body's needs. In hypokalemia, the adrenal gland retains the hormone and the kidneys conserve potassium when more is needed.

Hypokalemia Causes

The most common cause of potassium depletion is diuretic medication that increases urination. Diuretics are prescribed for medical conditions and are used in weight-loss programs. Other causes include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Dietary deficiency
  • Excessive sweating
  • Magnesium deficiency (causes overexcretion of fluid)

Signs and Symptoms of Hypokalemia

Symptoms of deficiency include cardiac arrhythmia, muscle pain, general discomfort or irritability, weakness, and paralysis.

Hypokalemia Diagnosis

Diagnosis may require urinalysis and blood tests to determine the amount of potassium being excreted by the kidneys.

Hypokalemia Treatment

Treatment involves potassium supplements, proper diet, and intravenous (IV) solution. The best way to maintain an adequate potassium level is to eat foods such as sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, spinach, and oranges. Patients taking diuretic medication are also given potassium supplements. Potassium is given slowly to avoid hyperkalemia.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Apr 2001

Last Modified: 27 Oct 2015