What to know about potassium deficiency symptoms

Potassium deficiency can occur if a person does not get enough potassium from their diet or loses too much potassium from prolonged diarrhea or vomiting. Symptoms depend on the severity of the deficiency, but can include high blood pressure, constipation, kidney problems, muscle weakness, fatigue, and heart problems.

Potassium is an essential nutrient that the body needs for a wide range of functions, including keeping the heart beating. Severe potassium deficiency is called hypokalemia and occurs when a person’s potassium levels drop below 3.6 millimoles per liter (mmol / L). Doctors consider a person to have severe hypokalemia – a potentially life-threatening condition – when their potassium levels are less than 2.5 mmol / L.

Potassium deficiency symptoms


Potassium plays an important role in the transmission of messages from the brain to the muscles and the regulation of muscle contractions. Low potassium levels can affect the muscles in the intestines, which can slow the passage of food and waste. This effect on the intestines can cause constipation and bloating.
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Muscular weakness Potassium deficiency can affect other muscles in the body, including those in the arms and legs, which can lead to general muscle weakness and cramping.

A person loses small amounts of potassium through sweating, which is why heavy sweating due to intense physical activity or being in hot weather can often lead to muscle weakness or colic.

Unexplained fatigue

Potassium is an essential nutrient that is present in all cells and tissues of the body. When potassium levels drop, this can significantly affect a wide range of bodily functions, which can lead to low energy levels and physical and mental fatigue.

High blood pressure

Low potassium levels can lead to increased blood pressure, especially in people with a high sodium or salt intake. Potassium plays an important role in relaxing blood vessels, helping to lower a person’s blood pressure.

Potassium also helps balance sodium levels in the body. A high sodium diet is a common cause of high blood pressure. Doctors often recommend that people with high blood pressure lower their sodium intake and increase their potassium intake.


The kidneys are responsible for removing waste products and regulating fluid and electrolyte levels, such as sodium and potassium, in the blood. They do this by passing waste and excess electrolytes out of the body in urine.

Moderate to severe hypokalemia can interfere with the kidneys’ ability to balance fluid and electrolyte levels in the bloodstream, and this can lead to increased urination, which is called polyuria.
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Muscle paralysis

People with severe hypokalemia may experience muscle paralysis. When potassium levels in the body are very low, the muscles cannot contract properly and can stop working altogether.

Respiratory problems

Severe hypokalemia can also lead to breathing problems. Breathing requires the use of various muscles, particularly the diaphragm. If a person’s potassium levels become too low, these muscles may not work properly. A person may have trouble breathing deeply or may feel very out of breath.

Irregular heart rhythms

Another symptom of severe hypokalemia is an irregular heartbeat. Potassium plays an important role in regulating the contractions of all muscles, including the heart muscle.

Very low levels of potassium in the body can lead to irregular heart rhythms, including sinus bradycardia, ventricular tachycardia, and ventricular fibrillation. If a person does not receive treatment, these conditions can be life threatening. Doctors can detect irregular heart rhythms using an electrocardiogram (EKG).

When to see a doctor

People with symptoms of hypokalemia should see a doctor. Hypokalemia is more common in people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and gastrointestinal diseases that cause severe or persistent diarrhea or vomiting. Certain medications, such as laxatives and diuretics, can also increase the risk of potassium deficiency.

It is important to seek immediate medical attention for symptoms of severe hypokalemia, such as muscle paralysis, breathing problems, or irregular heart rhythms.


A doctor can perform a simple blood test to determine a person’s potassium levels. The test involves taking a small sample of blood from a vein in the hand or arm. To determine the underlying cause of the potassium deficiency, a doctor will also review the person’s medical history and any medications they are taking. The doctor may sometimes recommend additional tests, including:

  • Additional blood tests to check the levels of other electrolytes, such as phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium.
  • Urine tests to determine how much potassium is leaving the body.
  • Additional tests may be required depending on the person’s medical history and symptoms.
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