Hypokalemia, or abnormally low potassium levels, causes an array of health problems. Potassium is responsible for maintaining fluid balance and conducting electricity throughout your body. When you don't have enough potassium, muscle and heart function begin to suffer, making you feel weak. In severe cases, low potassium levels can be fatal.
It is unlikely that you have a low intake of dietary potassium, since it comes from many foods, but certain conditions contribute to lower-than-normal levels. When you are violently ill and losing high amounts of fluid from vomiting and diarrhea, your potassium levels can become dangerously low. Using diuretics, which make you urinate frequently, also contribute to low potassium levels. Long-term usage of several antibiotics, including penicillin, may further deplete potassium in your body. Having a small drop in your potassium probably won't cause any symptoms, but as potassium levels continue to decrease, you might experience extreme fatigue, an abnormal heart rhythm and muscle weakness.
When potassium levels drop to dangerously low levels, your body can go through episodes of paralysis. Everything from your lungs through your digestive tract becomes affected. Paralysis from depleted potassium forces your lungs to function minimally or stop working all together. While undergoing treatment in the hospital, your doctor may have you on oxygen to help you breath or might have to put you on a breathing machine.
Paralysis also makes it difficult for you to have a bowel movement, and you may go for days without being able to pass stool. As potassium levels continue to drop, muscles, including the ones that move your bowels, become weaker and weaker. Your intestines stop pushing waste out of your colon, causing your bowels to become backed up. When you are constipated for long periods of time, your risk of diverticular disease increases. Diverticular disease causes small pouches along the intestinal lining, where food gets stuck, leading to painful inflammation.
According to a 2010 research review published in the "Experimental & Clinical Cardiology" journal, hypokalemia is present in 7 to 17 percent of patients with cardiovascular disease. Dangerously low potassium levels drastically drop your heart rhythm or cause your heart to beat sporadically. As heart rhythm decreases, blood pressure drops and your pulse becomes severely weak. If left untreated, hypokalemia can make your heart stop, which is known as cardiac arrest.
If your doctor catches hypokalemia early, mild symptoms can resolve quickly by taking prescription potassium supplements. In severe cases, you will have to be admitted into the hospital and receive potassium through an intravenous drip, or IV. When you are sick or when you sweat profusely from exercising, drinking a sports beverage can help replace any lost potassium, lowering your risk of depleted potassium levels.
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