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Potassium deficiency: symptoms, causes, treatment

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 231 views

In the case of a potassium deficiency (hypokalemia), there is too little potassium in the blood serum. This can be the cause or consequence of an illness. Various medications such as water tablets (diuretics) can also cause the potassium level to drop. The greater the deficit, the more dangerous the potassium deficiency. Find out here how this happens and what symptoms a potassium deficiency causes.

What is a potassium deficiency?

Doctors speak of a potassium deficiency (hypokalemia) when the level of this important mineral in the blood serum falls below the normal range (in adults below 3.8 mmol/l). In contrast, a serum potassium of more than 5.2 mmol/l (adults) is referred to as a potassium excess (hyperkalemia). The regulation of potassium excretion is regulated by the hormone aldosterone , which causes potassium to be released into the urine.

When does a potassium deficiency occur?

The causes of potassium deficiency are very diverse, as it plays a crucial role in the functionality of all cells and is therefore present everywhere.

Loss of potassium through the kidneys

If the body releases more aldosterone or cortisol than needed, more potassium is excreted in the urine with the help of the kidneys. One speaks of hyperaldosteronism ( Conn syndrome ) or hypercortisolism.

Certain medications can have a similar effect on potassium excretion through the kidneys. These include water pills (diuretics), glucocorticoids and antibiotics. Kidney weakness can also lead to potassium loss.

Loss of potassium via the gastrointestinal tract

Many minerals are lost through frequent vomiting or diarrhea . This also applies to the vital potassium. Excessive use of laxatives also causes potassium deficiency.

Decreased potassium intake

Although potassium is found in a wide variety of foods,  malnutrition can lead to a potassium deficiency.

redistribution of potassium

Potassium is found both inside cells and in the fluid outside cells. If the pH value of the body rises sharply (alkalosis), the body reacts by exchanging ions (charged particles) and transports more potassium into the cells. A potassium deficiency in the serum results.

The same phenomenon occurs with insulin therapy. Insulin stimulates the exchange of intracellular sodium for potassium and decreases the amount of extracellular potassium.

What are the symptoms of potassium deficiency?

Since potassium is significantly involved in cell excitation and signal transmission, a potassium deficiency leads, for example, to cardiac arrhythmia , muscle weakness (paresis) and reduced reflexes. Constipation and increased urination (polyuria) may also develop. Those affected also often complain of tiredness . Potassium deficiency symptoms should always be taken seriously.

What are the consequences of a potassium deficiency?

Potassium deficiency has the most dangerous effects on the heart . On the one hand, the so-called sinus node then gives the heart the command to contract (contraction) more frequently due to an overreaction of various channels: the heart beats too fast (tachycardia).

On the other hand, if there is a potassium deficiency, the heart cells can recover more slowly from a contraction. Since the recovery time differs from cell to cell, these get out of rhythm, which ultimately results in dangerous cardiac arrhythmias.

Various signs in the ECG , such as extrasystoles or a flattening of the T-wave, indicate a potassium deficiency.

How can you compensate for a potassium deficiency?

Acute hypokalemia is an emergency because of the possible consequences. The patient should be given intravenous potassium chloride immediately and his condition closely monitored. If drugs are responsible for the potassium deficiency, they are discontinued as soon as possible.

In the case of a chronic deficit, the potassium deficiency can be remedied with the help of potassium supplements . A potassium-rich diet with vegetables and legumes, potato products, fruit juices and nuts is much simpler and more sustainable. 

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