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What Is the Treatment for Hypokalemia?

Taking laxatives often can cause a magnesium deficiency, which may contribute to the development of hypokalemia.
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  • Written By: H. Lo
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 20 July 2014
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Hypokalemia is a medical condition in which the level of potassium in the blood is lower than it should be, normally. Usually, a small drop in potassium level is not a huge concern and does not cause any symptoms. When a large drop occurs, though, the condition can become life-threatening and result in symptoms such as abnormal heart rhythm, muscle weakness and paralysis. Treatment for hypokalemia varies from person to person and depends on the diagnosis, but includes potassium supplements by mouth and dietary changes, as well as intravenous potassium replacement, if the condition is severe.

In mild cases, treatment for hypokalemia usually involves taking potassium supplements by mouth. For those who suffer from hypokalemia because they need to take diuretic medication, a certain type of oral potassium supplement that keeps potassium in the body might be the best treatment option. In addition to potassium supplements, which can come in liquid or pill form, another treatment method that will help with hypokalemia is to consume foods that are high in potassium. Apricots, bananas and tomatoes, for example, are good sources of potassium. It is important that potassium levels do not get too high when taking supplements and consuming these foods, though.

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For more severe cases, treatment for hypokalemia involves intravenous potassium replacement. Intravenous replacement, which is the insertion of potassium into the veins, is a slow process because potassium irritates the veins, and too much of it, too quickly, can cause heart problems to occur, such as irregular rhythms and irritation. Periodic paralysis is a rare case of severe hypokalemia in which intravenous potassium replacement is necessary. This rare condition happens when the potassium level in the blood is so low that it causes the muscles to become extremely weak, making it difficult for the patient to move at all. With intravenous potassium replacement, periodic paralysis, which normally affects the arms and legs, but can also affect the muscles responsible for swallowing, usually subsides within 24 hours.

Treatment for hypokalemia, whether by mouth or intravenously, depends on the patient’s specific condition. Over time, the loss of potassium can cause damage to occur in the body, such as in the kidney. While potassium supplements or replacement can usually treat the hypokalemia, those who suffer from a severe case of the condition and do not seek proper treatment can experience a dangerously low drop in potassium. If proper treatment is absent, the condition can eventually lead to death.

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Discuss this Article

julies
Post 7

I wish there were more good food choices besides bananas, apricots or tomatoes for hypokalemia treatment.

When I had low potassium levels and my doctor recommended these foods to me, I knew there was no way I could do it.

I almost gag when I eat a banana. Apricots and tomatoes aren't quite as bad, but they certainly aren't on my list of favorite foods.

I knew I would be much better off taking a supplement every day than trying to force myself to get those foods down on a regular basis.

My potassium level was not dangerously low, but low enough that I needed some kind of extra supplementation.

Since I started taking the supplement, I have been able to get my level back in the normal range.

John57
Post 6

I had never given much thought to how important potassium levels are until my sister got very sick.

After going through several tests, they determined most of her symptoms were from low potassium.

She had to have intravenous potassium since that was the quickest way to increase her potassium level.

Before this happened, I had no idea how life threatening this could be if it went on for too long.

Now she takes potassium supplements on a regular basis to make sure her levels stay in the normal range. If she starts having symptoms of hypokalemia, she may have to have some more intravenous treatment.

myharley
Post 5

I had some fasting blood work done for a regular physical exam, and was told my potassium level was low.

I didn't have any physical hypokalemia symptoms, so my doctor told me to try eating a banana every day. I love bananas, so this was an easy thing for me to do.

My only problem is I don't like ripe, mushy bananas, so have to go to the store every few days just to get good bananas.

The last time I had blood work done, my potassium levels were normal. The only thing I had done differently was eating the banana every day.

I am glad this worked for me, since I would much rather treat this by eating good food than taking a supplement.

Perdido
Post 4

My college roommate became severely hypokalemic because of her eating disorder. She was anorexic, and she attempted to lose weight by using laxatives.

Not only was she flushing potassium out with her bowel movements; she was also not taking in enough through her scarce diet. She wound up in the hospital because of her strange heart rhythm and the fact that she fainted.

She had to be given potassium intravenously. It took several hours for the administration of it. She also had to start taking supplements orally.

The doctor could see that she was anorexic. So, he set her up some counseling to treat the source of the problem. Otherwise, she would just keep doing this to herself over and over.

OeKc05
Post 3

@orangey03 – Those cramps are the worst! I went through a series of them after I got a stomach virus that gave me persistent diarrhea.

I lost so much fluid that my potassium level became very low. I had the symptoms of hypokalemia, and I knew I needed to do something.

I had been afraid to take anti-diarrhea medicine, because I wanted to flush the toxins out of my body by letting it run its course. However, I had begun having painful muscle cramps. I was also so very tired and weak.

I knew that nothing potassium-rich that I ate would stay in my body as long as I had the diarrhea, so I started taking medicine to treat it. After it stopped, I began regaining my strength within a day, and the muscle cramps ceased.

orangey03
Post 2

@cloudel – Isn't it crazy how the drugs we take to cure us can also kill us? That amazes me that your body did not respond to even the supplements to help you retain potassium.

I don't have hypokalemia, but I think I get borderline hypokalemic at times. I am prone to extreme leg and foot cramps, and I only get them when I don't eat bananas for a couple of days.

It's crazy how just a few days without a potassium-rich banana can cause me to wake up screaming in the night because of an excruciating leg cramp. After my last horrible cramp, I started eating a banana every day. I either eat it for breakfast or during lunch, and I have not had any more cramps.

cloudel
Post 1

The cause of my hypokalemia was a diuretic I had to take to treat my kidney disease. It flushed me out so much that I could not keep potassium in my body.

My doctor gave me the kind of supplements designed to help me hang onto potassium. However, even these were no match for the extreme amount of urine I was producing, and my hypokalemia continued.

Even though I ate bananas and tomatoes every day and took the supplements, I still suffered from it. I had to stop taking the diuretic, because the drug would have eventually damaged the kidneys it was designed to protect.

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