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Hypokalemia is a condition of below normal levels of potassium in the blood serum. Potassium, a necessary electrolyte, facilitates nerve impulse conduction and the contraction of skeletal and smooth muscles, including the heart. It also facilitates cell membrane function and proper enzyme activity. Levels must be kept in a proper (homeostatic) balance for the maintenance of health. The normal concentration of potassium in the serum is in the range of 3.5-5.0 mM. Hypokalemia means serum or plasma levels of potassium ions that fall below 3.5 mM. (Potassium concentrations are often expressed in units of milliequivalents per liter [mEq/L], rather than in units of millimolarity [mM], however, both units are identical and mean the same thing when applied to concentrations of potassium ions.)
Hypokalemia can result from two general causes: either from an overall depletion in the body's potassium or from excessive uptake of potassium by muscle from surrounding fluids.


A normal adult weighing about 154 lbs (70 kg) has about 3.6 moles of potassium ions in his body. Most of this potassium (about 98%) occurs inside various cells and organs, where normal concentration are about 150 mM. Blood serum concentrations are much lower—only about 0.4% of the body's potassium is found in blood serum. As noted above, hypokalemia can be caused by the sudden uptake of potassium ions from the bloodstream by muscle or other organs or by an overall depletion of the body's potassium. Hypokalemia due to overall depletion tends to be a chronic phenomenon, while hypokalemia due to a shift in location tends to be a temporary disorder.

Causes and symptoms

Hypokalemia is most commonly caused by the use of diuretics. Diuretics are drugs that increase the excretion of water and salts in the urine. Diuretics are used to treat a number of medical conditions, including hypertension (high blood pressure), congestive heart failure, liver disease, and kidney disease. However, diuretic treatment can have the side effect of producing hypokalemia. In fact, the most common cause of hypokalemia in the elderly is the use of diuretics. The use of furosemide and thiazide, two commonly used diuretic drugs, can lead to hypokalemia. In contrast, spironolactone and triamterene are diuretics that do not provoke hypokalemia.
Other commons causes of hypokalemia are excessive diarrhea or vomiting. Diarrhea and vomiting can be produced by infections of the gastrointestinal tract. Due to a variety of organisms, including bacteria, protozoa, and viruses, diarrhea is a major world health problem. It is responsible for about a quarter of the 10 million infant deaths that occur each year. Although nearly all of these deaths occur in the poorer parts of Asia and Africa, diarrheal diseases are a leading cause of infant death in the United States. Diarrhea results in various abnormalities, such as dehydration (loss in body water), hyponatremia (low sodium level in the blood), and hypokalemia.
Because of the need for potassium to control muscle action, hypokalemia can cause the heart to stop beating. Young infants are especially at risk for death from this cause, especially where severe diarrhea continues for two weeks or longer. Diarrhea due to laxative abuse is an occasional cause of hypokalemia in the adolescent or adult. Enema abuse is a related cause of hypokalemia. Laxative abuse is especially difficult to diagnose and treat, because patients usually deny the practice. Up to 20% of persons complaining of chronic diarrhea practice laxative abuse. Laxative abuse is often part of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. Hypokalemia that occurs with these eating disorders may be life-threatening.
Surprisingly, the potassium loss that accompanies vomiting is only partly due to loss of potassium from the vomit. Vomiting also has the effect of provoking an increase in potassium loss in the urine. Vomiting expels acid from the mouth, and this loss of acid results in alkalization of the blood. (Alkalization of the blood means that the pH of the blood increases slightly.) An increased blood pH has a direct effect on the kidneys. Alkaline blood provokes the kidneys to release excessive amounts of potassium in the urine. So, severe and continual vomiting can cause excessive losses of potassium from the body and hypokalemia.
A third general cause of hypokalemia is prolonged fasting and starvation. In most people, after three weeks of fasting, blood serum potassium levels will decline to below 3.0 mM and result in severe hypokalemia. However, in some persons, serum potassium may be naturally maintained at about 3.0 mM, even after 100 days of fasting. During fasting, muscle is naturally broken down, and the muscle protein is converted to sugar (glucose) to supply to the brain the glucose which is essential for its functioning. Other organs are able to survive with a mixed supply of fat and glucose. The potassium within the muscle cell is released during the gradual process of muscle breakdown that occurs with starvation, and this can help counteract the trend to hypokalemia during starvation. Eating an unbalanced diet does not cause hypokalemia because most foods, such as fruits (especially bananas, oranges, and melons), vegetables, meat, milk, and cheese, are good sources of potassium. Only foods such as butter, margarine, vegetable oil, soda water, jelly beans, and hard candies are extremely poor in potassium.
Alcoholism occasionally results in hypokalemia. About one half of alcoholics hospitalized for withdrawal symptoms experience hypokalemia. The hypokalemia of alcoholics occurs for a variety of reasons, usually poor nutrition, vomiting, and diarrhea. Hypokalemia can also be caused by hyperaldosteronism; Cushing's syndrome; hereditary kidney defects such as Liddle's syndrome, Bartter's syndrom, and Franconi's syndrome; and eating too much licorice.


Mild hypokalemia usually results in no symptoms, while moderate hypokalemia results in confusion, disorientation, weakness, and discomfort of muscles. On occasion, moderate hypokalemia causes cramps during exercise. Another symptom of moderate hypokalemia is a discomfort in the legs that is experienced while sitting still. The patient may experience an annoying feeling that can be relieved by shifting the positions of the legs or by stomping the feet on the floor. Severe hypokalemia results in extreme weakness of the body and, on occasion, in paralysis. The paralysis that occurs is "flaccid paralysis," or limpness. Paralysis of the muscles of the lungs results in death. Another dangerous result of severe hypokalemia is abnormal heart beat (arrhythmia) that can lead to death from cardiac arrest (cessation of heart beat). Moderate hypokalemia may be defined as serum potassium between 2.5 and 3.0 mM, while severe hypokalemia is defined as serum potassium under 2.5 mM.


Hypokalemia can be measured by acquiring a sample of blood, preparing blood serum, and using a potassium sensitive electrode for measuring the concentration of potassium ions. Atomic absorption spectroscopy can also be used to measure the potassium ions. Since hypokalemia results in abnormalities in heart behavior, the electrocardiogram is usually used in the diagnosis of hypokalemia. The diagnosis of the cause of hypokalemia can be helped by measuring the potassium content of the urine. Where urinary potassium is under 25 mmoles per day, it means that the patient has experienced excessive losses of potassium due to diarrhea. The urinary potassium test is useful in cases where the patient is denying the practice of laxative or enema abuse. In contrast, where hypokalemia is due to the use of diuretic drugs, the content of potassium in the urine will be high—over 40 mmoles per day.


In emergency situations, when severe hypokalemia is suspected, the patient should be put on a cardiac monitor, and respiratory status should be assessed. If laboratory test results show potassium levels below 2.5 mM, intravenous potassium should be given. In less urgent cases, potassium can be given orally in the pill form. Potassium supplements take the form of pills containing potassium chloride (KCl), potassium bicarbonate (KHCO3), and potassium acetate. Oral potassium chloride is the safest and most effective treatment for hypokalemia. Generally, the consumption of 40-80 mmoles of KCl per day is sufficient to correct the hypokalemia that results from diuretic therapy. For many people taking diuretics, potassium supplements are not necessary as long as they eat a balanced diet containing foods rich in potassium.


The prognosis for correcting hypokalemia is excellent. However, in emergency situations, where potassium is administered intravenously, the physician must be careful not to give too much potassium. The administration of potassium at high levels, or at a high rate, can lead to abnormally high levels of serum potassium.


Hypokalemia is not a concern for healthy persons, since potassium is present in a great variety of foods. For patients taking diuretics, however, the American Dietetic Association recommends use of a high potassium diet. The American Dietetic Association states that if hypokalemia has already occurred, use of the high potassium diet alone may not reverse hypokalemia. Useful components of a high potassium diet include bananas, tomatoes, cantaloupes, figs, raisins, kidney beans, potatoes, and milk.



Brody, Tom. Nutritional Biochemistry. San Diego:Academic Press, 1998.

Key terms

Diuretics — A class of drugs that cause the kidneys to excrete excess sodium, water, and potassium.
pH — The unit of acid content is pH. The blood plasma normally has a pH of 7.35-7.45. Acidic blood has a pH value slightly less than pH 7.35. Alkaline blood has a pH value slightly greater than pH 7.45.
Potassium — An electrolyte necessary to proper functioning of the body.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


abnormally low potassium concentration in the blood; see table of Electrolyte Imbalances at electrolyte. It may result from potassium loss through the kidneys or gastrointestinal tract (vomiting or diarrhea), uncontrolled diabetes mellitus with polyuria, increased adrenocortical secretion, steroid therapy, diuretic therapy, excessive diaphoresis, or burns or other injuries. The earliest signs are weakness and muscle cramps and numbness and tingling that usually begin in the lower extremities. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, which can further contribute to potassium deficit. Paralysis of the muscles of respiration can produce respiratory arrest. Neurologic involvement can lead to confusion, irritability, and coma. The heart is particularly sensitive to potassium deficiency. The electrocardiographic abnormalities presented are depression of the T wave and elevation of the U wave. Susceptibility to digitalis toxicity is increased when a patient has hypokalemia. Replacement of potassium can be accomplished by administration of potassium chloride, either orally or intravenously.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


The presence of an abnormally low concentration of potassium ions in the circulating blood; occurs in familial periodic paralysis and in potassium depletion due to excessive loss from the gastrointestinal tract or kidneys. The changes of hypokalemia may include vacuolation of renal tubular epithelial cytoplasm with impairment of urinary concentrating power and acidification, flattening of the T wave of the electrocardiogram, and muscle weakness.
Synonym(s): hypopotassemia
[hypo- + G. kalion L. kalium, potassium, + G. haima, blood]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


An abnormally low concentration of potassium ions in the blood.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Hypopotassemia, low blood potassium Metabolism ↓ K+ in serum Etiology Crash dieting, Cushing syndrome, DKA, dehydration, familial periodic paralysis, GI tract wasting, hyperaldosteronism, licorice–due to aldosterone-like effects of glycerrhizic acid, malnutrition, metabolic acidosis, nasogastic suctioning, starvation, stress–burns, surgery, trauma, vomiting, drugs–eg, aspirin, corticosteroids, potassium-wasting diuretics, estrogen, insulin, laxatives, lithium, sodium polystyrene sulfonate/Kaylexate Clinical Hypotension, weak, rapid, irregular pulse, muscle weakness, paresthesias, confusion EKG Flattened T wave Ref range 3.8-5.0 mmol/L–US: 3.8-5.0 mEq/L
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


The presence of an abnormally small concentration of potassium ions in the circulating blood; occurs in familial periodic paralysis and in potassium depletion due to excessive loss from the gastrointestinal tract or kidneys. The changes of hypokalemia may include vacuolation of renal tubular epithelial cytoplasm with impairment of urinary concentrating power and acidification, flattening of the T wave of the electrocardiogram, and muscle weakness.
Synonym(s): hypopotassemia, hypokalaemia.
[hypo- + G. kalion, L. kalium, potassium, + G. haima, blood]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


Presence of an abnormally low concentration of potassium ions in the circulating blood.
Synonym(s): hypokalaemia.
[hypo- + G. kalion, L. kalium, potassium, + G. haima, blood]
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012
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