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What is potassium?

Potassium is a mineral that is found in the foods you eat. It is also an electrolyte. Electrolytes conducts electrical impulses throughout the body. They assist in a range of essential body functions, including:

  • blood pressure
  • normal water balance
  • muscle contractions
  • nerve impulses
  • digestion
  • heart rhythm
  • pH balance (acidity and alkalinity)

Potassium isn’t produced naturally by the body, so it’s important to consume the right balance of potassium-rich foods and beverages. Consuming too little potassium can lead to serious health consequences. However, taking in too much can also cause temporary or long-term health problems. Healthy kidneys maintain normal potassium levels in the body because they remove excess amounts through urine.

Sources of potassium

Potassium is most commonly derived from foods. Potassium-rich sources include:

  • fruits, such as apricots, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and pineapples
  • vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, and potatoes
  • lean meats
  • whole grains
  • beans and nuts

Most people get enough potassium just by eating a balanced diet. For low potassium levels, a doctor may prescribe the mineral in supplemental form. If you have a severe deficiency, you may need intravenous (IV, through a vein) treatment.

Potassium deficiency

Certain conditions can cause potassium deficiencies, or hypokalemia. These include:

  • kidney disease
  • overuse of diuretics
  • excess sweating, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • magnesium deficiency
  • use of antibiotics, such as carbenicillin and penicillin

The symptoms of hypokalemia are different depending on how severe your deficiency is.

A temporary decrease in potassium may not cause any symptoms. For example, if you sweat a lot from a hard workout, your potassium levels may normalize after eating a meal or drinking electrolytes before any damage is done.

However, severe deficiencies can be life-threatening. These are the signs of potassium deficiency:

  • extreme fatigue
  • muscle spasms, weakness, or cramping
  • irregular heartbeat
  • constipation, nausea vomiting

Hypokalemia is usually diagnosed with a blood test. Your doctor may also order an electrocardiogram of the heart, as well as an arterial blood gas test to measure pH levels in the body.

Potassium overdose

When not monitored carefully, too much potassium can cause hyperkalemia. This is rare for people who eat balanced diets. Risk factors for overdose include:

  • taking too many potassium supplements
  • kidney disease
  • prolonged exercise
  • cocaine overdose
  • potassium-conserving diuretics
  • chemotherapy
  • diabetes
  • severe burns

The most obvious symptom of a potassium overdose is an abnormal heartbeat. Severe cases can lead to death. People with mild cases of high potassium rarely have noticeable symptoms. Your doctor should order occasional blood work if you have any risk factors.

Treating imbalanced potassium levels

There are different treatments for imbalanced potassium levels that depend on if your levels are too high or too low.


Potassium supplements are usually the first course of action for levels that are too low. Supplements are mostly effective if your kidneys are in good shape. Severe hypokalemia may require intravenous treatment, especially if you’re experiencing an abnormal heartbeat.

Potassium-sparing diuretics can rid the body of excess sodium. This will help normalize electrolyte levels. However, some diuretics and potassium supplements can be harsh on the digestive tract. Ask a doctor for wax-coated pills to help prevent digestive ailments. Potassium-sparing diuretics can only be used in people with normal kidney function.


Mild cases of hyperkalemia can be treated with prescription medications that decrease potassium excretion. Other methods include diuretics or an enema.

Severe cases may require more complex treatments. Kidney dialysis can remove potassium. This is the preferred treatment for cases of kidney failure. For people with healthy kidneys, a doctor might recommend doses of insulin and glucose. These help to transport potassium from the blood to cells for removal. An albuterol inhaler can also lower dangerously high levels. Calcium gluconate may be used temporarily to stabilize the heart and reduce the risk of serious heart complications from hyperkalemia.

What is the outlook for imbalanced potassium levels?

Changes in body potassium may not be a concern if you don’t have risk factors. Healthy kidneys are often enough to regulate body potassium. Medical conditions that affect levels should be monitored regularly. Call your doctor if you experience any unusual symptoms.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Cherney
Medically reviewed on: Nov 15, 2016: George Krucik, MD, MBA

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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