Your body needs many types of minerals to perform various critical functions. Potassium is an important mineral required for an effective control of blood pressure levels, nerve health, muscular wellbeing and cellular health – especially, cells of your cardiac system. A drop in potassium levels – called as hypokalemia – means the aforesaid functions will function at a sub-optimal level. Medical sciences have identified the causes that can lead to a drop in this mineral. Most of these causes are linked to intake of a few medicines, pursuing unhealthy lifestyle habits and deficiencies of some nutrients or minerals. In some instances, low level of potassium may also be caused by incidence of a medical condition or syndromes. You need to stay aware of the likely side effects and adverse reactions associated with decreased levels of potassium.
Hypokalemia is clinical term to denote reduction in the presence of an electrolyte called potassium. Almost the entire deposit of this mineral in your body is found in cells. Potassium plays a vital role in keeping your cardiac muscles to function well; this only means that your blood pressure levels are under greater control. This mineral is also essential for the functioning of your muscles. Your renal system is known to exert a great level of control on the presence of potassium in your blood. Hence, people who live with chronic kidney disorders (CKDs) are likely to have problems in maintaining a healthy level of potassium.
An optimal level is 3.5 to 4.9 millimoles per liter of your blood. When your diagnostic test shows a drop in potassium, it may have reduced to 3.4 mmol per liter or further below. You also need to know that a condition wherein it drops to less than 2.6 mmol per liter is considered as extremely serious. The reasons behind such a drop include inefficient functioning of your kidneys, substance abuse –especially, an excessive intake of alcohol or using tobacco-based products, intake of laxatives for a longer term, inadequacy of folic acid, low level of magnesium, sweating profusely, etc. Use of water pills or diuretics (and, any other meds that make you to urinate often), a few types of antimicrobial meds, etc. are also considered as other possible causes. Apart from the above, a few medical conditions such as Cushing’s or Liddle syndrome as well as chronic spells of diarrhea and vomiting are known to cause a reduction in potassium level.
Side effects of low potassium
Side effects caused by a marginal reduction of potassium in your system are minor in nature. Some people with such marginal reduction in potassium level may never witness any major side effects or discomforts. However, when level of potassium has gone below a critical point, many side effects may start showing up. Some of these adverse side effects are weariness, cramping of muscles, erratic heartbeats, fatigue, involuntary twitching of muscles, difficulties to discharge stools or constipation.
Serious side effects of low levels of potassium in blood
A serious side effect of very low potassium level is the impairment of your renal health. People who live with such low levels may witness frequent urges to drink water or other fluids due to dehydration; they may also notice the need to use the toilets often to urinate.
Other acute side effects include muscular fatigue and weariness; people who witness frequent cramping of muscles may run the risks of paralytic attacks. Your breathing cycles may get affected as muscles play a key role in the contraction and expansion of your lungs. So, when your lungs are not properly squeezed and stretched, your body witnesses breathing problems. At an acute stage of this condition, you may need to use assisted respiration – i.e., get the support of a ventilator to inhale and exhale.
Loss of muscular coordination
Low potassium levels may make you lose control over your muscular activities as well as motor function. In other words, your muscles may not heed to your brain signals, and may start moving on their own. This condition may start with minor discomforts like spasms or cramping of muscles. If left untreated, these spasms and cramping can – over a period of time – lead a partial or a complete loss of muscular coordination or motor function.
Severe spells of constipation
Low level of potassium can make your foods to travel very slowly inside the digestive tract. Such slow motion of foods can soon lead to drying of stool, and can also result in stool-hardening. If left untreated, one may experience traces of blood in stool, inflammation of the rectal muscles and other allied disorders. You are hence advised to watch out for the first signs – like, dried or hard stools, and take needful medical support to soften them. If left unattended, these initial signs may turn into a chronic state of constipation.
Mental health conditions
Your body receives a lot of stimuli from the brain to perform its activities. But, a sub-optimal presence of potassium can impair your body to receive and respond to stimuli received from the brain. In the absence of proper stimuli or brain messages, you may imagine sounds or sights which are not truly present. This condition – in clinical parlance – is called as a psychotic effect. If you are not taking needful treatment to these hallucinations, you may witness spells of depression, mood shifts or other mental conditions such as anxieties, etc.
Your cardiac wellbeing depends a lot on how much potassium your blood has in it. An inadequate level can be detected when your heart skips a beat. If such erratic beats are experienced more often, it can signify a serious deficiency of potassium. If you do not attend to such skipped heartbeats or rapid beating of heart, it can give way to myocardial problems. In most cases, your body may react by passing out or fainting; these actions are natural defense mechanisms by which your body safeguards your brain as well as other organs from getting damaged. Passing out is also due to inadequate supply of oxygen to your brain; a condition often associated with erratic heartbeats.
When potassium in blood goes below 1.1 mmol per liter, you may find it difficult to move your limbs due to a muscular breakdown; if not treated immediately, it can lead to a permanent damage and can also lead to paralysis. In most instances, legs and hands are likely to get affected the most. In some remote instances, you may find it difficult to swallow your foods; in equally rare instances, a few people have reported severe breathing difficulties.
Treatment of low potassium in blood
If you have any of the aforesaid symptoms, your doctor may suggest a few diagnostic tests to confirm a drop in potassium. Common diagnostic tests include testing of blood samples, urine samples or performing an electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG is done to monitor the functioning of your heart; which is most likely to show erratic beats when this minerals drops below 3.2 mmol per liter of blood.
Treatment of low level of potassium includes administration of supplements. If the deficiency levels are marginal, an oral dose is prescribed. However, if the decrease is acute – say, less than 3.0 mmol / liter – potassium is administered through intravenous route. People find it irksome especially, a sense of irritation is felt in their veins when potassium is intravenously administered; hence, the rate of intravenous dosage is never more than 9 mmol / hour. Also, a faster intake of potassium dosages may result in erratic heartbeats (medically referred as tachycardia).
Among oral supplements, drugs based on potassium chloride are widely used. The only disadvantage here is the unpleasant taste of such drugs. However, these drugs make it possible to deliver an accurate measure of potassium with each dose. The side effects caused by potassium chloride include indigestion, vomiting and nausea. Supplements made of potassium bicarbonate are used to rectify low levels of potassium triggered by conditions like acidosis – especially, metabolic-acidosis. This condition is caused when your body makes more acid than required levels. You are also advised to take moderate levels of potassium as an excessive intake may lead to a condition called hyperkalemia.
Your doctor may also perform a few other tests to know your overall wellbeing; more precisely, the health of your thyroid gland as well as tests to check the presence of needful amounts of magnesium in your system. The aforesaid two conditions are also other possible causes for a drop in potassium. Upon detecting any of these conditions, your physician may start a comprehensive medication plan to treat the underlying cause. Of these two, inadequate availability of magnesium is called hypomagnesemia. This condition is caused by multiple risk factors. The salient risks are excessive intake of alcohol, swelling of the pancreas, sweating profusely, absorption related problems caused mainly by bowel disorders or internal swelling.
Potassium can be obtained from foods rich in this mineral. Your dietitian can help you identify such potassium-rich foods. In general, foods that are rich in this mineral are vegetables (tomato, legumes, greens, beets, etc.), fruits (such as avocado, orange, banana, strawberry, etc.), juices (of orange, grapefruit or prune) as well as meats like turkey, beef and fish. But, you may need to be aware that boosting your potassium levels by foods as the only source can lead to multiple side effects. A major disadvantage is the need to consume plenty of foods that are rich in potassium. The side effects of such intake are increase in body weight, metabolic disorders, indigestion, nausea and other abdominal problems.
In general, the common side effects caused by a marginal drop in potassium are not acute. Also, a marginal drop is unlikely to trigger any side effects. But, once the level of potassium goes under a threshold level, side effects such as erratic heartbeats, frequent spells of fatigue, weariness, cramping of muscles, twitching of muscles, constipation, etc. are observed. Upon witnessing any of these adverse reactions, you are advised to talk to a qualified physician without delay.