Are There Any Side Effects to Low Potassium?

Potassium is an electrolyte in the blood that regulates body functions. In most situations, electrolyte levels change as the body’s water level changes. Low potassium levels, or hypokalemia, result when blood levels drop below 3.5 milliequivalents per liter. According to the Merck Manual, a slight decrease may not produce symptoms, but if potassium drops to dangerous levels, the deficit can be life-threatening because every body system is affected.

Effects on the Heart

Arrhythmias, or abnormal contraction rates of the heart, are dangerous side effects of low potassium. Your pulses might be irregular and weak. Orthostatic hypotension is another side effect where you experience dizziness and light-headedness upon standing because of a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Effects on the Lungs

Low potassium causes extreme weakness of skeletal muscles, including those of the lungs. You will experience difficulty breathing as each breath becomes shallow and ineffective in oxygenating the rest of the body.

Effects on Nerves and Muscles

When potassium levels keep dropping, generalized muscle weakness will eventually result in paralysis. Reflexes will become diminished and the sense of touch will gradually disappear as well. Effects on the nervous system also include feeling overwhelmingly tired, anxious or confused. Dangerously low levels of potassium can result in a coma.

Other Effects

Other side effects are also due to decreased muscle tone resulting from low potassium. The Physician’s Desktop Reference states you might experience increased urination, constipation and abdominal distention. Nausea and vomiting are consequential to decreased motility of the gastrointestinal system.

About this Author

Based in Chicago, Jojo Genden is passionate about sharing her health and wellness expertise through writing since 2008. She holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from Rockford College, and a Bachelor of Science in nursing from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Genden is a registered nurse in the state of Illinois with a background in intensive care.