Potassium Shortages in the Body

A potassium shortage can affect your heart.

A potassium shortage can affect your heart.

While you may not devote a lot of time to thinking about potassium, you literally can't think without it. Potassium is one of the driving forces behind your nerves and muscles, making it vital to feeling and staying well. If your potassium levels drop and it becomes scarce in your body, you can experience life-threatening symptoms. Always seek immediate medical attention if you think your potassium levels have dropped too low.

Normal Levels

Potassium circulates in your bloodstream, which means a small, but ouch-inducing, blood test can measure how much of the electrolyte mineral you have. Ideally, you will have between 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter, or mmol/L, in your body, according to MayoClinic.com. This is the normal range for potassium. If your potassium levels are lower than this, your doctor will work to identify what could be the cause of your potassium shortage.

Cause: Medications

Your kidneys regulate the amount of potassium in the body, and the extra is released via your urine. Some medications can interfere with the kidneys' methods of filtration, and you could lose too much potassium. Examples include diuretics, which stimulate your kidneys to release extra urine. Antibiotics also can cause a potassium shortage. These include penicillin, nafcillin, carbenicillin, gentamicin, amphotericin B and foscarnet, according to MedlinePlus.

Cause: Illnesses

Diarrhea and vomiting are two conditions that can lead to potassium shortages. These illnesses cause you to lose extra potassium due to fluid loss. Diseases affecting your kidneys also can cause potassium shortages because your kidneys have difficulty regulating your potassium levels. Examples include Cushing syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, Bartter syndrome, Fanconi syndrome and Liddle syndrome. Eating disorders such as bulimia also can cause you to lose too much potassium. Lack of dietary potassium is not typically the cause of potassium shortages unless you are eating a very low-calorie diet with minimal amounts of fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat.


Potassium shortages can affect a number of body systems, especially the cardiovascular system. While a small shortage shouldn't cause extreme symptoms, levels that dip significantly low -- around 2.5 mmol/L or less -- can have dangerous effects, according to MayoClinic.com. Examples of potassium shortage symptoms include abnormal heart rhythms, unexplained fatigue, constipation, muscle damage, muscle weakness and muscle paralysis, including paralysis of lung muscles that can inhibit breathing.

About the Author

Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.

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