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Potassium disorders: Treatment, symptoms, advice and help

About potassium disorders.

Potassium is an important electrolyte in the body whose function is to facilitate various cellular functions. Our body regulates the amount of potassium in the body, but there may be times when there is either too much or too little potassium in the body cells.

Most of the potassium found in the body is inside the cells (intracellular) while only about 2% is outside the cells (extracellular). Presence of excess potassium in the blood is termed as hyperkalemia (> 5.3 mEq/L) whereas too little potassium is termed as hypokalemia (< 3.5 mEq/L).

Potassium disorders: Incidence, age and sex

Hyperkalemia is rarely encountered in the general population. The incidence of hyperkalemia is less than 5%. Men are significantly more prone to developing hyperkalemia than women. Furthermore, it is more commonly seen in premature infants or elderly group.

Hypokalemia is seen in less than 1% of the general population. Women are significantly more prone to developing hypokalemia than men and its incidence increases with age.

Signs and symptoms of potassium disorders: Diagnosis

Symptoms of both hyperkalemia and hypokalemia are almost same and include increased fatigue, weakness, and palpitations. The diagnosis in both the cases is established by serum measurements of potassium.

Causes and prevention of potassium disorders.

Hyperkalemia often occurs when there is kidney failure. When kidneys fail, they are not able to filter potassium properly and this results in increased accumulation of potassium in the body. In addition, hyperkalemia can result from drugs that do not allow the excretion of potassium (e.g., potassium-sparing diuretics). Moreover certain conditions that shift potassium out of the cells may also result in hyperkalemia. Such conditions include destruction of skeletal muscle as in rhabdomyolysis or destruction of tumour cells following chemotherapy.

Individuals with hypokalemia may have exactly the reverse causes. It may result from inadequate dietary intake of potassium coupled with use of diuretic drugs or excessive aldosterone (hyperaldosteronism). One common cause of hypokalemia is chronic diarrhoea and vomiting resulting in potassium loss via the gastrointestinal tract. Also, drugs that can cause hypokalemia include Amphotericin B, antipseudomonal penicillin, and theophylline.

Potassium disorders: Complications

Arrhythmias, cardiac arrest, and changes in neuromuscular control are possible complications of hyperkalemia. Hypokalemia, on the other hand can result in several muscular-related complications.

Potassium disorders: Treatment

The treatment of hyperkalemia includes restricting the intake of potassium. So, potassium-rich foods like fruits need to be avoided. Already established hyperkalemia needs to be treated by lowering the serum potassium with glucose and insulin to stimulate cellular uptake of potassium and also diuretics to increase urine production and renal potassium excretion. If this treatment fails, then dialysis is the last resort.

The treatment for hypokalemia, on the other hand, involves stopping any medications that contribute to hypokalemia and providing potassium supplementation. Patients are also given dietary advice and asked to eat food rich in potassium.