What Are the Causes of Low Potassium Levels?

Updated November 21, 2016

Potassium is an important electrolyte that helps maintain cells for muscle and nerve function. The medical term for a low potassium level is hypokalemia. Symptoms of low potassium include muscle aches, fatigue, muscle cramps, constipation, abnormal heart rhythms and muscle weakness. Some foods that are high in potassium include bananas, oranges, cantaloupes, avocados, peas, beets, tomatoes, beef, fish and turkey. A low potassium level may result from a number of causes, including eating disorders, illness, surgery and medications.

Eating Disorders

While a poor diet rarely causes a low potassium level, eating disorders may be responsible. For example, bulimia is a disorder where an individual causes herself to vomit following a meal. Fasting, starvation and crash diets can also cause low potassium. Laxative abuse sometimes accompanies such eating disorders and this too can contribute.


Illness can result in excessive and rapid potassium loss. Intestinal disorders that involve vomiting and diarrhoea can deplete the potassium level very quickly. It is important to keeping drinking fluids during serious episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea because dehydration can also lower the level of potassium. Beverages that contain electrolytes are often recommended, such as sports drinks.


Potassium may be depleted during and following any surgical procedure. Some result in more extensive loss than others. For example, an individual could lose a significant amount of potassium following bowel surgery. Removal of a villous adenoma, which is a colon polyp, may cause potassium to leak from the colon.


Certain medications can affect the potassium level. Diuretics, used to treat water retention, result in excessive urination where potassium is lost. Low potassium is also associated with the side effects of some medications, such as Aminoglycosides, a class of antibiotics; Amphotercin B, an anti-fungal drug; and Prednisone, a steroid.


Treatment of the underlying cause of low potassium is an important step in treating it. A diet of foods rich in potassium are recommended to replace the loss. In addition, a physician may recommend or prescribe a supplement of potassium to restore normal levels. If you are taking a diuretic for some other condition, your doctor may suggest that you drink a glass of orange juice or eat a banana every day. In severe cases, potassium may be administered intravenously.

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