Hypokalemia is used to refer to low levels of potassium inthe blood. Potassium is an essential mineral which acts an electrolyte, enablingthe conduction of nerve impulses and muscle contractions including those of theheart. In addition it regulates the function of cell membranes and theactivity of enzymes. Hypokalemia occurs when the levels of potassium go below3.5 mM, the normal levels ranging from 3.5-5.0 mM.
Hypokalemia is most commonly brought on either by overall lack of potassium in the body which is usually a chronicdisorder; or it can be the result of muscle’ and organs’ sudden consumption ofpotassium from the blood which is usually temporary. Hypokalemia is often the side-effect of diuretics, which are used to eliminate excess amounts of water in conditions such as liveror kidney disease high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
Diarrhea and vomiting, as a result of gastrointestinalinfections, can lead to dehydration and hypokalemia, which is another majorcause of this condition. Due to hypokalemia, the heart can stop beating, thus increasing the risk of fatal outcome especially in infants. Laxative abuse hasalso been associated with the appearance of chronic diarrhea, followed by thedrop of potassium levels. Vomiting interferes with the body’s acidity which makes thekidneys eliminate large quantities of potassium in order to restore thebalance.
Fasting and starvation continued over a long period of timecomprise the third major cause of hypokalemia. As a result of starvation, the bodystarts breaking down protein from muscle in order to transform it into energy, whichcauses the levels of potassium to decrease. However, an unbalanced diet doesnot lead to hypokalemia as potassium is obtained from fruits, vegetables, meat,milk and cheese. There have been cases of hypokalemia caused by alcoholism asa result of vomiting, diarrhea or malnutrition.
Symptoms and complications
A person whose potassium levels drop can feel thirsty, constipatedand pass large amounts of urine. In diabetics, the levels of blood sugar rise in cases ofhypokalemia, as the condition affects the release of insulin. Fatigue, muscular cramps, pain and weakness are the mostcommon muscular complications. Moreover, the body can begin to break the muscledown which is known as rhabdomyolysis. Rarely, leg or armparalysis can occur.
Hypokalemia affects the heart in the sense that it leads tocardiac dysrythmias (irregular heartbeats). In cases of severe dysrythmias,cardiac arrest or lung paralysis may occur. Small children can also experiencecardiac arrest as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. Tachycardia, anunusually fast heartbeat is another cardiac complication of hypokalemia. Metabolic acidosis, the conditions of raised acidity ofbodily fluids, renal cystic disease, hepatic encephalopathy and respiratoryacidosis are other possible complications of hypokalemia.